Stop the Emails, Jurgis!

Max Weber Haus in Heidelberg, Germany

Where it all went down.

Once upon a time, I made the mistake of putting myself on a mailing list.

Not the kind where you type your email address into the computer at the register at DSW and the girl assures you, “ALL we send are coupons, I promise,” or the kind where you get a Hulu Plus account (finally, after “thinking about it” for like a year) and then you get emails that say unnecessary things like “John, Catch the Latest Fall TV This Week.” Not that kind.

I mean the kind where you write your email next to your name on a piece of paper on a clipboard, or taped to a table, or getting passed around the room. Kids, never do this. Ever.

Netflix, Hulu Plus, Google+, Twitter, Goodreads, Gilt Groupe, PLNDR, and all the other nonsense I’ve signed up for that floods my inbox daily have one redeeming factor in common: each of their emails contains a link that says “Unsubscribe me from this list.” Or, if they’re being coy, “Manage my email preferences.” There is a clear path to salvation, and it is paved with hyperlinks like these.

Conversely, you will never see that paper list again. You cannot erase or scribble out your name to stop the madness. There is no link, no preference management, there is only people—people with a single, unbroken listserv (N.B. for you kids: listserv is a pre-millennial ’Net term for an electronic mailing list).

There are two primary strategies for combating this particular pickle:

  1. The Reply. Write something kind, but brief. “Hi there, would you mind unsubscribing me from your email list?” An explanation like, “I just don’t have the time to be involved in [club / organization / humanitarian cause] the way I thought I would” helps to assuage the guilt of unsubscribing from really shamelessly good things, things which if you were any sort of decent human being you would never dream of unsubscribing from. You’re not, though, and you’re sick of the emails.

If you’re lucky, whoever has been charged with the sheaves of handwritten, well-meaning email addresses will carefully adjust his or her email template to remove your address. If you’re not, he or she will say, I have to remember to delete that address, and then forget, or will delete it but then get lazy and send a new email by rewriting an old one with the addresses already inserted, and you’ll get the email anyway.

  1. The Block ‘n’ Filter. Adjust your email account settings to block incoming email from specific email addresses, and/or create a filter that swats them away as they come flooding in every weekday morning. Go directly to Trash. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

This works fantastically, until the changing of the email guard—somebody gets sick of composing and sending constant emails, and some bright-eyed neophyte is elected as a replacement. The group’s listserv is passed on via copy and paste and reemployed ab initio.

Of course, these strategies require taking decisive action, rather than merely deleting unwanted emails every morning, or absentmindedly clicking “Mark as Read,” until you realize you can’t remember the last time you opened an email from LinkedIn or Express Men, and have totally auto-piloted your delete/Mark Read response for months, which realization is both pathetic and unsettling.

My own experience with this strain of endless email began in college, where I eagerly and foolishly signed my name to nearly every undergraduate-borne standard in sight—renewable energy, women’s rights, slightly more specific women’s rights, LGBTQQIA advocacy (LGBTQQIASGLTSAPP in some circles), each group more loquacious than the last. I’m not sure I ever attended a meeting. All of these I escaped upon graduating. No more “Save the Earth!” and Recyclemania, no more “Vegan Cupcake Party!” invitations—not a cupcake, not a party.

And yet one list still haunts me.

While studying in Heidelberg, I once attended a choir rehearsal as a favor to my friend Helena. I’d been in choirs growing up, sang in an a cappella group in college, and was open to the possibility of meeting some like-minded people. As it happened it wasn’t very fun, and I never went back, but I’ve paid the price for flaking.

At this first rehearsal, Helena and I were seated far apart according to voice part, thereby nullifying my gesture of agreeing to come with her. Within five minutes of arriving, a list was circulated; my German was at least good enough to understand its function—it was the Emailliste.

The man to my left passed me the dreaded clipboard, smiling expectantly—he, I gathered, being already on the list, and so eager to confer the honor. I demurred, or tried to, but he mistook my head-shaking to mean that I didn’t understand, and that I was simply doing that thing people do when immersed in a foreign language, which is to smile dumbly and take a mild, arbitrary stab at yes or no, irrespective of the question.

I was not doing that thing, except perhaps for smiling dumbly, and though I didn’t understand a great deal of the German noise around me, I did understand The Clipboard. He (helpfully) mimed writing, and pointed with his pen to the fairly English-friendly column headings—NameEmail—and offered the clipboard once again. There was a definite language barrier between us, but it was opposite to the one he perceived—he not understanding me, and not the other way ’round. I smiled back, acquiescent, and wrote down my name and email. I should have written down anyone else’s.

Since that day, I have received semi-regular emails from no fewer than four different people: Martina, Vera, Gerhard, and Jurgis. I have never met these people. I’m just on their list. In the remaining months of my stay in Heidelberg, the emails acted as guilty reminders of those smiling choristers, merrily wishing that I might join them. Once I returned to the US, however, they became just annoying. I emailed Martina a month or so after leaving, in my most carefully wrought German: “Hello. Would you please be able to kindly from this list of email remove me?” She did, kindly, but just a few weeks later I heard from Gerhard. “Wichtige Proben!” And so forth.

These days it’s Jurgis I hear from most often. “Donnerstag 19 Uhr Probe!” he’ll write. “Heute Sommerfest!” Oh, Jurgis. You’ve taught me so much. Never again will I hesitate to offer a firm “Nein, danke” to smiling faces with clipboards, nor let so much as a shadow of guilt pass over my trackpad in clicking “Unsubscribe.” I’ve learned my lesson, and hardly bat an eye when some young dreamer on Seventh Avenue asks, “Do you have time to save the whales today?” Sorry, whales. I don’t.

All these gifts you’ve given me, Jurgis. Now please, please, stop the emails.

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