Opinion | The Kids Are Right About Email, Too

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By Margaret Renkl

Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

NASHVILLE — My great-grandfather, whom the family called Papa Doc, was a country doctor who practiced medicine by examining sick people in their own homes and delivering babies in their parents’ own beds. For that reason, Papa Doc’s house, though modest even by Lower Alabama standards, was one of the first in the county to have a telephone.

After my grandparents’ house burned down, my grandfather, a farmer who spent his days walking the red dirt rows behind a pair of mules, took his young family to live with Papa Doc and Mama Alice in the house with the telephone. When my great-grandparents died a month apart in 1943, my grandfather called Southern Bell and told the company to come get the phone.

You might think he was overcome with grief and just not thinking straight, but no. “I don’t want to be at the beck and call of everybody with a telephone hanging on the wall,” he told my grandmother.

I think of that story more and more often these days, though my phone hardly rings at all. The unwelcome technology I want to yank off the metaphorical wall is email.

One morning last week in that dream-lingering, half-waking state of still dark, the time when ideas are most apt to bloom and problems are most apt to solve themselves, the thought that came to me was this: I should delete every unanswered email in all my inboxes and find out how many people really need me badly enough to write again.

Some of you probably noted the reference to “all” those inboxes. I have five of them, each for a different task, though only one is truly useful. The others exist to keep the useful one from overflowing. It overflows anyway, and every day I compound the problem by emailing myself: reminders of what I really must not forget to do, messages that have sunk too low in the queue and risk being overlooked, links to articles I hope to read if ever there is time.

There is never time.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how my kids’ generation gets so much right that our generation got terribly wrong. “The youngs are much better about all this in so many ways,” she said. “But I still wish they’d answer my emails.”

That conversation brought me right back to my waking dream. We’d all be rich if I had a dollar for every time I’ve reminded my kids to check their email — mostly by texting them to say, “Please check your email” — but suddenly it hit me: What if Gen Z and the late-born millennials are right about more than just work-life balance and destigmatizing mental illness? What if they’re right about email, too?

This generation missed the “You’ve Got Mail” era, that brief, sunny time when email was still electronic mail: long, thoughtful letters that got delivered, miraculously, in a blink. Old-timers groused even then that email could never adequately replace condolence letters or thank-you notes, much less love letters, but that was just tradition talking. In truth, “You’ve Got Mail” was a movie about a 19th-century courtship correspondence conducted via a 20th-century pony express.

My children never got the chance to know the pleasure of a heartfelt exchange that traveled with the speed of a text but nevertheless carried the soul of the sender. All they have known is what email has devolved into: reply-all responses to bulk messages, shipping notifications, fund-raising pleas, systemwide reminders and, of course, spam. Email is now just a way to be at the beck and call of anyone, and any robot, with an internet connection.

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