Email Autocomplete Is Sucking the Life Out of Communication

The new services turn email into bloodless business speak. So why are we allowing Silicon Valley to dictate what we say?

Credit: Shira Inbar

IfIf you’ve used Gmail any time recently, you’ll probably be familiar with Smart Reply and Smart Compose. Smart Reply is simple. Whenever you receive an email, three jaunty and heavily exclamation-pointed options pop up under its body: things like “Thank you!”or “That sounds great!” or “That works for me!” Click the option you like the best, edit (or don’t), and press send. Congratulations: an email that would have taken you 30 seconds to write has taken you two.

Smart Compose, on the other hand, helps you craft emails yourself. Up pops grayish text when you start to write an email, suggesting how you might like to end your sentence. You start writing “That sounds…” and “good to me!” appears. Like Smart Reply, it makes writing emails easier, faster, and far less mentally taxing.

When Google rolled out Smart Compose for business customers last year, the company said the feature would “fill in common phrases and relevant addresses,” though the technology is ultimately supposed to write in a user’s voice. It’s still a work in progress: in April, Google said Smart Compose was “becoming more tailored to your writing style.”

As the feature stands, its rote suggestions feel meaningless. Though it is hard to imagine now, in the early days of the internet, email was often a joyful, creative medium. But many of us now consider email a largely professional mode of communication, the primary method for contacting colleagues or clients, finding work, arranging meetings, or chasing invoices. Smart Compose and Smart Reply functions, often efficient and businesslike in their tone, both reflect this use. But should they?

Josh Cohen isn’t so sure. “If you hold the view that language is important, that it’s more than a simple communication of information, and that it has to do with the way that we understand ourselves and our relationships with other people, then there’s something very significant about this,” he tells me.

Cohen is professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths University in London, and when he’s not in the lecture hall he’s in the consulting room, working as a psychoanalyst. He’s also the author of the book Not Working, in which he exhorts us to do exactly as the title suggests: slow down and stop thinking about work.

Cohen argues that work impinges on all aspects of our lives — not least our inner lives, which he is naturally interested in as an analyst. And business speak — the corporate language of “circling back,” “going forward,” and “reaching out” — is of particular interest to Cohen.

“It basically conceives of the person we’re communicating with as something other than, less than, a complete person,” he says. “We’re encouraged to communicate with them on a purely informational basis. And the more that becomes the common language of interpersonal relations, the more the relationships themselves get slowly transformed.”

Why is this? Because business jargon is a “language of externalities… a language of surfaces.” It’s the language of what we do rather than who we are. Cohen describes it as “a stripped down Esperanto”, a universal language created in the 19th century.

“It doesn’t really acknowledge the existence of thoughts and feelings below the surface of our speech,” says Cohen. “But there’s something really rich, in social life of all kinds, about ambiguity, about being able to find other possibilities in what people are saying. When there’s no interest in or curiosity about the personal dimension of this interaction, that does have an affect on the inner life. It switches our focus pretty exclusively to our external being and to the being that we show the world, rather than the one whose heart is beating underneath.”

It’s not hard to see how business speak flattens our emotional affect. It’s highly unlikely that we’d sincerely tell a friend that we’d “circle back” to a query they had or a comment they’d made, and different relationships tend to produce different grammars and rhythms of intimacy. But even in a professional relationship that was friendly and seemingly authentic, to “circle back” or “go forward” would not seem amiss.

Encouragement to engage in such dialogue, then, through autocompleted sentences or one-click replies, may not be a good thing. The use of exclamation marks alone is telling — the upbeat, enthusiastic face many of us feel implicitly forced to wear at work writ large in a spiral of ever cheerier responses. Séamas O’Reilly wrote in the Guardian of a week in which he replied to his emails with nothing but Smart Reply; he described being made to feel that tech companies are “not just reading, but remodeling” us in “their own ghastly image.”

As with so much in modern technology, at the heart of such features lies a tendency to encourage speed, streamlining, and productivity. We’re working more than ever; as Juliet B. Schor wrote in her 1991 book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, one of capitalism’s most durable myths “is that it has reduced human toil.” Why wouldn’t we want to cut down on one of the more pointless tasks a day presents us with?

Once, AOL’s cheerful chirrup that “You’ve Got Mail!” seemed thrilling, perhaps even romantic; now we spend time reading articles about how best to “reclaim our productivity” by achieving inbox zero.

Technology, we’re told, gives us the capacity to reduce the time we spend doing apparently thankless tasks. We no longer have to spend 15 seconds writing “Thanks!” to someone who does us a favor, just as the rise of subscription services means we don’t even have to go to the store for toilet paper anymore, instead receiving it at our door, each month, as if by magic.

When it comes to boring logistical tasks like scheduling meetings, writing to-do lists, or sharing documents, this automation can be time-saving and useful. But email, somehow, has also become part of that group. We see it as an administrative tedium, a necessary evil, something we no longer value as an authentic mode of communication. We rarely, if ever, think about the people on the other end of our missives; if we do, we tend to think of them as a source of frustration, not connection. Once, AOL’s cheerful chirrup that “You’ve Got Mail!” seemed thrilling, perhaps even romantic; now we spend time reading articles about how best to “reclaim our productivity” by achieving inbox zero.

But is it even possible to automate human interaction, to automate a relationship between colleagues, between client and supplier, editor and writer? With more of us working remotely, email is fast becoming the primary mode of professional communication for thousands of people. Shouldn’t we make it better, not worse? And shouldn’t we make it more personal, rather than less?

“I’m really suspicious that it has the intended effect,” says Cohen, when asked about the negative effects of streamlining. “When human beings are talking to each other, streamlining often has the effect of making people feel unheard… when what they’ve actually said has received this completely generic, impersonal response that they might have got if they’d said the opposite.”

Cohen has other concerns about what this might generate, too: resentment, suspicion, a feeling of why didn’t they reply to me properly? “Presumably people are getting more and more adept at recognizing when they’ve been fobbed off with a bit of Google predictive text,” he says. And when that happens, it feels like a slight.

“It’s a way of saying ‘I don’t think this warrants anything like personal effort or input or voice,’” Cohen says. If someone’s message gets a generic and interchangeable response, what does it imply? That their concern is interchangeable and irrelevant, too.

As much as we might wish otherwise, email isn’t going away. One study described email as a “staple form of communication that is essential, important, and entrenched in the lives of people today,” and also found that Gen Zers were likely to increase their email usage over the next few years, overtaking even Gen Xers and millennials.

The Gen Z study also found the group was not using email primarily for business or professional reasons: 36% of emails were between respondents and people they work with, 24% between respondents and “companies connected to their occupation.”

The key finding, in fact, was that 68% of emails were personal. Merrily automating replies or clicking instant responses that make us sound like the cheerful and put-together professional that we’re expected to be at work is one thing; having it overtake more intimate spheres is another.

Yes, we might be making our lives easier and more convenient. But are we making them better?

This article has been updated to clarify how Smart Compose works.

Journalist and author

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