Future Tense

In Praise of Email Debt Forgiveness Day

The messages keep coming.

Dmitrii Kotin/thinkstock.com

We live in an age of Days.

On the internet, invented occasions proliferate, some inviting awareness, others memorializing events that never interested us in the first place. The most important will get Google doodles, and even the dopiest sometimes merit recognition on Wikipedia. This May alone, we’ll be asked to honor Star Wars Day (the 4th), Towel Day (the 25th), and many more. Our trajectory is clear enough: Before long we’ll be celebrating Day Awareness Day, dutifully familiarizing ourselves with under-recognized annual occurrences.

But if the calendar is cluttered, my email inbox is more so, a thorny thicket of unanswered missives buried beneath unwanted offers. I know I am not alone in this: Though some of my friends—and some Slate editors—brag of their adherence to the Cult of the Inbox Zero, others are drowning. When I inquired about the topic on Facebook, one posted a queasifying picture of his primary Gmail inbox, letting the number—87,946 unread messages—speak for itself. I count only 68 (read and unread) in my personal account, but each is a lodestone.

It’s the consciousness of this burden that leads me to reluctantly endorse—praise, even!—Email Debt Forgiveness Day, which makes its second appearance on April 30. As Reeves Wiedeman explains in The New Yorker, Email Debt Forgiveness Day is the creation of Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, hosts of the internet culture podcast Reply All. On their show’s website, Goldman and Vogt write, “If there’s an email response you’ve wanted to send but been too anxious to send, you can send it on April 30th, without any apologies or explanations for all the time that has lapsed.” In lieu of further details about the delay, they invite you to simply link to their own explainer of the holiday.

If this feels necessary, it may be because the emails we fail to send often matter to us most. “The emails that I really want to respond to in a thoughtful way—put some time and heart into—are the ones I leave the longest, or in many cases, don’t end up answering,” my friend Mindi tells me. Like her, by the time I’ve called up an adequate response, I find that I’m paralyzed by the time that’s passed. A recent episode of Reply All goes deep into some such stories, tales of unresolved heartbreak and unexpected connection. 

To be sure, this guilt isn’t the invention of email. Tucked away in a drawer somewhere, I probably still have a letter from one Brenna P.—a letter that she sent when we were 9, one that overwhelmed me even then, so much so that I never wrote back. Shame has always clung to human connection, a constant reminder that we’re never as good to others as we’d like to be. Digital communication hasn’t created this problem, then, but it may have intensified it, confronting us with the fact of our failures, given it a numerical value.

Email Debt Forgiveness Day isn’t right for everyone, of course. One Slate employee told me that she tried it last year, only to receive baffled responses to her belated replies. An ex mistakenly thought she was trying to get back together with him, she said, while other correspondents were just offended. Lesson learned: If you plan to celebrate the holiday this year, don’t expect everyone to understand.

Still, as a reminder that we’re not alone in our guilt, Email Debt Forgiveness Day can provide a much needed push. It might not be as socially important as, say, World Turtle Day, but in encouraging us clear up some of the emotional clutter in our lives, Email Debt Forgiveness Day might free us up to be a little more conscientious about everything else.