Your Self-Worth Is Not in Your Inbox – The New York Times

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A nonresponse to email may be rude, but it is not the end of the world.
Credit…Margeaux Walter for The New York Times
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Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.
At a recent work event, there was a ceremony and people who completed a program were invited onstage and given a certificate. We were called up in batches, one of which was for foreign employees. Almost all of us have Asian names. As our names were called, the host of the ceremony faked wiping away brow sweat and quipped that reading our names was an unexpected test. The mostly white audience laughed, while onstage, I felt like a joke.
I’ve purposefully chosen to retain my original name, having moved to a different country, speaking a new language. It carries significance in my mother tongue, and I know my mother chose it with hope and love. I figure too that getting someone’s name right — or at least a good show of effort to do so — is basic respect.
The least the program organizers could have done was ask us how to pronounce our names, instead of joking about how foreign they are. After the event, I seriously considered dropping the director an email but I’m hesitating because it could appear like a small issue I should overlook. What should I do?
— Anonymous, Paris
You should never overlook xenophobia and disrespect. Names matter. Our parents tend to put a lot of thought and love and hope into our names. It is asking so little to expect people to spell and pronounce them correctly. That host was incredibly banal and rude with those melodramatics. White people sometimes think it is oh so very funny to express their discomfort with anything that challenges their place in the world, even slightly.
It is quite easy to ask people how their names are spelled and pronounced. It is even easier to simply do your best at reading names aloud without making a big show of demonstrating just how small your world is and how little you know about other cultures.
You haven’t given me enough information to determine if you would jeopardize your job should you email the director. If you decide to do so, write to that person sharing your name’s pronunciation. Suggest that next time anyone at the organization has to pronounce names with which they are unfamiliar, they might consider reaching out to the individuals for guidance. I’m sorry you and others at that ceremony had your special moment marred by idiocy but it does not detract from your accomplishment. For that, I congratulate you.
What is the best way to handle a nonresponse to email? There are three issues: how long to wait before following up, what to put in the subject line and how to start the body of the email. I just now received a response to a nudge I sent two and a half days after the first one, because I need a decision, and the recipient said, “Thanks for writing again, your original email went into spam!”
One colleague who I’ve shared a friendly dinner with never replies to my emails, which is humiliating and hurtful. He must think he’s more important than me, but I’m going to keep sending updates on my research of mutual interest to us as he is in a position to hire me for a gig.
What are your thoughts on all of this?
— Anonymous
The short answer:
1. It’s subjective, but in general, wait at least five business days before following up on an email, unless there are time sensitivities that dictate a quicker follow up.
2. The subject line should be concise, clear and informative.
3. Begin the email with a professional, polite greeting and then don’t waste time. Say why you’re writing, what you’re asking for, if anything, and then provide whatever additional information the recipient might need.
The longer answer:
We are not owed email responses. A nonresponse may be rude but it is not the end of the world. If, for example, you find it humiliating and hurtful when your colleague doesn’t reply to your email, what’s going on there? What does that behavior trigger for you and why? Your colleague isn’t more important than you. I doubt he thinks anything of the sort. Whether or not he responds to your email is not a reflection of your importance or self-worth. Right or wrong, he has made choices about his own work priorities. Unfortunately, those choices affect you.
If you need an email response, ask for one, detailing exactly what you’re asking from the recipient. If there is a time constraint, mention that, specifically. Most people are inundated by emails. Quite a lot of people who send emails are bad at writing emails. Too many emails are simply unnecessary or incomplete or too long. When work or life gets too hectic, yes, email is probably going to be the first thing to go. It’s a necessary part of our professional lives but it is not the whole of our professional lives.
A few years ago, the author Melissa Febos wrote about responding to emails. She shared how she was prioritizing her writing rather than rapid email response, but a lot of what she says is equally applicable to other fields. At first, I bristled, because I’m a people pleaser, but I’ve realized I don’t have to respond to every email and, frankly, I cannot feasibly do so. I try my best to respond to as many emails as possible. I try not to take too long to reply. I accept that I am human and sometimes, I will fall short. Extend that grace to yourself and others, as well. Don’t let email trouble you too much.
I have a fantastic job in my field but I am miserable because my boss is a nightmare. I’m currently hunting for a new job, but it’s awkward. Most of the opportunities aren’t as “good” (well-paid or long-term) as the job I currently have, so interviewers want to know why I would wish to leave my “good” job for their merely OK one. I assume saying “my boss is a nightmare” will raise alarm bells, and some euphemistic version — “I have serious differences of opinion with my supervisor” — is hardly better. I don’t think it would be necessarily immoral to lie in this situation, but I can’t come up with a decent lie. How can I answer this question?
— Anonymous
It is not immoral to obscure the truth about why you are looking for new work. It is practical. You don’t owe potential employers your personal business. Just tell them you’re looking for a change of scenery or new challenges. If you want to tell some version of the truth, you might say that it isn’t a good culture fit at your current job.
I was recently fired for something I did early on and never repeated after my supervisor brought it to my attention; nevertheless, a long investigation eventually called for automatic termination. Getting fired is never fun, and unfortunately this was not my first such experience, so I have that extra personal work to do moving forward.
How do I best deal with inquiring friends, family, and, separately, prospective employers when they ask what happened? There are different answers owed to different parties; in a job interview I know it’s important to engage with the question more honestly, but with friends and family I really think it’s rude to ask, and wonder if there’s a good way to express as much without losing what’s left of my dignity. I would love to get some advice on how to go about it.
— Anonymous, Palm Springs, Calif.
I hope you are fruitful in doing that extra personal work. I know how hard that kind of introspection and self-accountability can be. In the meantime, it’s up to you how you explain your job loss to friends and family. It is rude of them to ask; people are nosy and often feel entitled to information that is absolutely none of their business.
You have a range of options. You can simply say you’d rather not talk about it. You can offer some version of the truth within whatever boundaries you set for yourself. With prospective employers, tell the truth while highlighting how you have changed, what you have learned, and the steps you have taken to not make the same mistake again. The truth will, of course, be a deal breaker for some employers but the right employer will, I hope, value your honesty and accountability and the other professional merits you will bring to their organization.
Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at


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