Doing nothing is a free action.

I am a junkie and my drug is the feeling that I have been productive today. One of the ways that I shoot up is by clearing my inbox. I’ve been an Inbox Zero acolyte for the past two or three years, deleting, replying to, and dispatching every message I receive as quickly as possible.

I respond in short, frenetic bursts of activity. I give coworkers curt, icy business formal replies of “yes” and “no” and “sounds good” with no exclamation points, smiley faces, or other fuckery. I write emails to students on my phone, explaining the central limit theorem while walking down the street. If I am forwarded a job posting, I open it in a new tab, submit my relevant attachments, delete the email, and move on. I use my inbox like a to-do list, and I like to check things off quickly. It makes me feel like I deserve the supreme comfort and freedom that my privileged academic life has given me.

I used to reply to nearly every email I received. If someone asked me for advice or references, I helped them; if someone asked an insipid question, I answered it. If some toxic ex-boyfriend wrote me a meandering screed that was equal parts threatening and amorous, I sent a frosty, fuck-you message back. If my academic adviser or PI sent me a document with the words PLEASE REPLY TO CONFIRM RECEIPT printed at the top, twice, in all-caps, I fired off a rejoinder immediately. I was so fucking giving.

I have learned, or re-learned, the gift of silence. Non-action can be a powerful way of saying no, of throwing up boundaries. Not responding to someone is a more persuasive indication of boundaries than any reply could ever be, really. It took several long and agonized “PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE” messages to certain toxic ex-boyfriends for me to recognize that.

I want to answer everything; that’s my first impulse. I have opinions and responses to everything; I think a lot and write a lot and want my thoughts to be recorded, read, respected. Every time someone posts something on my Facebook wall, I feel the need to sound off with my opinion, a flurry of tight paragraphs. I keep the conversation going if anyone replies. I’m the same way with text messages, Tumblr inbox missives, chats.

But I’m learning the power of leaving things unsaid. I’m having a renaissance in that attitude, perhaps, because of my boyfriend. He’s the reserved type — when he writes, he gives every word the time and consideration it deserves. While I’m tapping out three-thousand word rambly stories, he’s piecing together tight monologues of a hundred words that somehow say more. In conversations, he emotes and responds appropriately (more so than me), but he doesn’t necessarily say anything. He never cuts people off to share what he knows or thinks or feels. I always do.

Which isn’t to say either approach is better than the other. Neither one of us is a bloviating narcissist or an antisocial refrigerator baby. There are times when a long-form approach is warranted, and times when silence is the classier response. Insert cliched phrase about romantic partners “balancing eachother out” here.

I don’t think being around me has made him more opinionated or longer-winded, but over the course of our relationship I’ve certainly gotten less conscientious on Facebook. He, I should mention, is notorious for not replying to emails or acknowledging Facebook posts. Where I feel the need to respond to even the most insipid or offensive of comments, he lets things slide down the screen and out of his awareness. If something pointless or unappealing is said, he just doesn’t respond.

When I realized that ignoring shit was a possibility, a viable option, I felt a kind of giddy relief and freedom. It’s such a classy way of telling someone that their comments are bullshit. Ignoring a provocative statement, shitty email, thoughtless comment, or imposing request is as physically satisfying as drinking a bottle of simple syrup. It’s a queasy, guilty, getting-away-with-something-bad kind of rush. For a productivity addict like me, anyway.

And it’s a funny return to form. I used to be good at using silence to communicate. When my dad disowned me, via a ranting and raving voice mail when I was 16, my response was the ultimate icy wall of silence. For the better part of two years, he called me, used my sister as a messenger, and sent me half-apologetic, half-provocative letters written by an unsteady hand on yellow legal paper. I threw the letters out. I didn’t answer the calls. When he came by the house, I went deep into the back rooms, away from the windows.

If you’ve read much of my nonfiction, you know what happened next. My dad died before I had the chance to forgive him and thaw the icy wall I had built between us. The last message I ever sent him was incredibly indirect, incredibly passive aggressive, and resoundingly clear: I changed my last name, disowning him as he had disowned me. My sister told him about it. He sobbed in the car beside her. He stopped trying to connect with me. He died.

I felt immense guilt at the whole thing for years — still do, always will — and I know that if he had lived a few years longer, I would have reestablished contact. His pissy attitude and hurtful words would have shrunk in my memory, and I would have forgiven him. Or he’d have written one more pathetic letter, which would have made me cave. I also know (and this is the guiltiest part of all) that any additional contact between me and him would have just caused further pain. And so despite the cruelty of my freeze-out, I am better off for it.

This experience gives me a unique and ambivalent perspective, when it comes to managing unpleasant relationships. When someone tells me they have a parent or friend who is cruel, unpredictable, demanding, or abusive, my first instinct is to say, cut them out. Cut if off. End it. I believe very strongly in boundaries, and I believe boundary-crossers should be punished with hostility, silence, or ideally both. I know firsthand that life is already too short and compromised to waste any extra time on people who make you feel shitty.

But. I also know the profound soul-shivering guilt of losing someone while your relationship with them is on bad terms. So when someone does complain to me about their overbearing mom, their psychotic sibling, their abusive ex, I want to say — end it and be free. But know the gravity of what you are doing. Your silence is the last message you will ever send.

Originally published at

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