Opinion | A ‘Slow to Respond’ Message for Digital Overload

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We can all agree that suddenly cutting off contact with a romantic partner or professional colleague, never to be heard from again, is rude and should happen much less than it currently does. But what about the other, less egregious ways we might blow off each other’s messages, especially at work? In these exhausting times, when so many are overburdened with family responsibilities, stress, grief and anxiety, perhaps we should let go of the outdated, demanding requirement to participate in ceaseless back-and-forth conversations.

Cal Newport, a computer science professor and the author of “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload,” suggested to me (via email) that “triage” is a better way to describe this type of behavior.

Many of us have no choice but to triage, as we are flooded with Slack messages, emails, texts and Zoom requests, and must make constant real-time decisions about which ones warrant an instantaneous response, which ones we need to think about before answering and which others aren’t really worth our attention. All this digital noise can lead to a state of “cognitive overload,” which researchers in a paper on remote work during the pandemic published last year warned “may result in ineffective information processing, confusion, loss of control, psychological stress — or even an increase of depressive symptoms.”

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For those of us who strive to be polite, text-based digital communications — all those chimes and dings and vibrations — can be extremely demanding. Ignoring a Slack, email or text message feels rude, but should it? After all, as Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute, which offers advice and training on good manners, reminded me, when our phone rings, we’re under no obligation to answer it. “You have to be a civil and decent person,” Mr. Senning told me, “but you don’t have to give your time and attention to everyone who asks for it.”

The etiquette of digital communications is and should be different from that of in-person or phone conversation, Mr. Newport argued, especially when it comes to the back and forth of hellos, goodbyes and other pleasantries, which can become a kind of communication clutter. “It might seem rude in the moment not to say something, as in an in-person conversation it can feel abrupt to not finalize an exchange,” he explained. “But in the context of digital communication, the sender often actually prefers avoiding the receipt of additional messages when possible.”