What the COVID ‘Normal’ and Your Email Inbox Have in Common

What have become everyday precautions against COVID-19 might seem similar to those taken while navigating your email inbox. Or at least they should.

Just as I was about to get out of my car in my local grocery store parking lot, I froze.

The checklist that has been my constant companion through these weird, fear-laced pandemic times ran through my head:

  • Did I have my mask? I did, there in the cup holder.
  • Was it clean? Oh hell, who cares.
  • Did I want to wear it? Well no, of course not, it’s uncomfortable and I can’t help but feel weird and put-upon and a little angry every time I put it on.

But my deliberations didn’t stop there.

“What were other people doing?” I asked myself.

One young couple walked in mask-less, but a bunch of others, including an older couple I know, were all masked up. There was no clear norm; I’d have to make the call.

“How was I going to feel if I went in without one?”

Maybe a little guilty, at least if the people I knew recognized me. But not really guilty—we were in a gray area here and I knew I wasn’t violating a strong social norm, one way or the other.

This series of questions went through my head in a flash. Then I pulled the trigger on my decision and went in.

Did I wear the mask? I’ll tell you soon, but first let me relate one other thought that popped into my head as I walked in.

This is just like navigating my inbox!

Evaluating Risks

I realized I perform this kind of multi-step risk calculation all the time, and so do you.

Every time I open my inbox I ask myself:

  • Do I know who sent this to me? Most of the time yes, but not always.
  • Can I be sure it’s them? I’m not talking about “Is it from a company I know?” but deeper, as in can I be sure it is from who it purports to be from? The answer here is usually qualified—I can be reasonably sure but not certain.
  • Are they asking me to do something reasonable? If I’m dubious at all, then I’m likely to balk right here, but sometimes I keep going.
  • Would there be an independent way for me to verify what’s being asked or offered in this email? If I’m skeptical on all the initial questions but I get to this one, I’m in pretty deep. I usually decide pretty quickly: when in doubt, delete. Sometimes it’s just not worth it. If someone really wants to reach me, they’ll try again.

What I do in my inbox every day is a form of risk management on a small scale. And as I walked into the grocery store, I realized COVID has made risk managers of all us.


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We're All Risk Managers Now

Steering clear of phishing emails and navigating the COVID world both involve juggling multiple complicated risk-based questions.

In both cases, I enter a place at that is both familiar and fraught with potential pitfalls. In my inbox and in my grocery store, I could accidentally expose myself to some virus that could lay dormant in my system before becoming active. I could even spread it to others without ever knowing I had it.

And in both cases, I feel like I have to be wary of previously-consoling social cues: I’ve been here so many times before, I know people here, I feel comfortable here. The very things that should make me feel safe are now a source of suspicion!

My Decision

In the end, we all do our risk calculations and then make the best decision we can.

On the day I went into the grocery store, I put on my mask. I’m tending to default to emulating the most risk-conscious behavior exhibited in the environment, and I didn’t want my elderly neighbors to feel like I wasn’t respecting their risk decisions.

But I’ve made the decision the other way as well: I went by a local market (we called them “party stores” when I was growing up) and was the only one in the parking lot. I went in without a mask; the owner didn’t have one either. In both cases, I think my exposure risk was pretty low.

But I’ll tell you this: I’m not quite ready to go into a crowded bar, and I’m definitely not clicking on a link asking me to claim my COVID tax rebate.

Taking It in Stride

I get it; these risky situations feel bad.

It’s no fun to have to be skeptical of every email you get, to suspect scammers are constantly looking to trip you up.

And it’s no fun to stay away from your friends and coworkers, to put on a hot mask and have your speech muffled, to try to communicate so much with your eyes, to see people you know and love hurting from the multiple levels of distress cause by this virus.

But when it comes to your inbox, and when it comes to COVID, we’re all risk managers now. We all have to evaluate the risk of clicking links in our email, just like we have to weigh the risks of not wearing a mask when we go into the store.

Risks in life are unavoidable. But with a little more awareness of both the digital and physical worlds, these risks should not stop us in our tracks. They should keep us on our toes.


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Check out more content from Tom Pendergast on his blog Confessions of an Awareness Nerd.

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