Why I Don’t Use Email

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

I was going to write about this topic anyhow, but the fact that I was accosted (in a friendly sort of way) by a nice lady after a recent parish event encouraged me to do so sooner, rather than later. The topic – using email.

The parishioner who approached me in the sacristy of one of our local churches was rather unhappy because she wanted to send me an email about a current topic but couldn’t find an email address for me. “That’s because I don’t have one,” I said. “What?” she asked incredulously. “Come on, get with it; it’s the 21st century. Don’t you know that I can even email the President of the U.S.?” (“Yeah, and like he’s going to personally read your email,” I said to myself.)

“Whatever you’d like to share with me, sit down, write a letter, put it in an envelope, attach a stamp, and mail it to my office,” I invited my debater. “I promise, you will get a response.” Well, she did, and I did, and she did again, and that ended our correspondence, at least for the moment.

I’ll explain why I don’t use email, but first, let me stipulate – I do use email, on a very limited way at home, mostly for informal correspondence, to keep in touch with family and friends. My personal email account gets precious little use for office business. (Hillary Clinton would have done well to learn that lesson!)

But, basically, there are three reasons why I don’t use email at the office.

First, because I’m wary of technology in general and I try to keep a healthy distance. When it comes to machines and communication, and lots of other things I guess, I prefer the 20th century (mid-20th century actually) to the 21st century.

Here’s my confession: My computer skills are very basic; I don’t know a DVR from a VCR; I’ve heard about Netflix and Blu-Ray but don’t really know what they are; I prefer CDs to iTunes, real books to iBooks, and actual photos to Instagrams; I don’t own an iPod, an iPad or a laptop; I don’t use online banking and insist on having a real paycheck in hand rather than a direct deposit; and I really dislike having to refill my growing list of prescriptions online.

My hesitation to use email at my office is another sign, a symptom if you want, of my techno-phobia. And in a culture that is so dependent on, even hopelessly addicted to, technology these days, being a little bit counter-cultural is not a bad thing. I consider it a prophetic statement.

Second, I avoid the use of email at the office because it’s altogether too facile.

It takes very little energy, and even less thought, to sit down, vent electronically, push the send button, and expect someone else to turn cartwheels to make you happy. If I used email on a regular basis, any current news item could generate dozens, even hundreds of emails to me, all of which, presumably, would expect a response. I take my correspondents seriously, and if they write to me in the old-fashioned way they’ll receive a response – either from me or someone else on diocesan staff who knows what they’re doing. (Disrespectful and anonymous letters are always ignored, by the way.)

Emails are superficial and hastily written, often to the chagrin of the writer. On more than one occasion I’ve seen angry, incoherent emails sent to the Diocese at 1:00 or 2:00 o’clock in the morning that I know the authors regretted sending upon waking at 6:00.

Finally, I avoid email at the office because I’m convinced that it’s often used, ironically, to avoid real conversation and dialogue. Emails are sterile, they’re distancing, and they’re off-putting. Some people write things in emails that they’d never say face-to-face to a family member or co-worker. And emails aren’t always as efficient as advocates pretend them to be.

For example, in trying to set up a meeting with a few members of diocesan staff, I might say to one, “Have you heard from so-and-so about that meeting next week?” “I sent an email but I haven’t heard back yet,” is the response. “Well, how about this – walk ten feet across the hall, knock on the door and ask him,” is my primitive suggestion. Sigh . . . in the name of technology, we’ve lost the human touch, and sometimes, common sense.

Email has limitations that real mail doesn’t. It’s not at all unusual for me to respond to a letter I receive from an elderly person, an ill person, or a youngster, by sending a letter I’ve composed and typed myself and also enclosing a little prayer card or a holy card. You can’t do that with email.

The art of writing letters, real letters, for business or personal reasons, is quickly disappearing. That’s unfortunate. I have in my personal files dozens of hand-written letters that I wrote to my mom and dad weekly during my four years of study in Rome from 1969-1973 that my mom was prudent enough to save. They kept us connected, and now they recall an important time in my life. Truly priceless possessions. Skype is nice, but it’s simply not the same.

So, dear readers, if you want to contact me at the office, send a letter – a real letter. I promise that I’ll do my very best to respond.

But, I’ve got to go now. My iPhone is buzzing.