I’m organising my daughter’s batmitzvah celebration in Israel early next year. It’s just before Passover and a busy time in the Holy Land. After sifting through advice from friends, I’ve settled on a ceremony on the summit of Masada, the scene of an epic stand-off between the Jews and the Romans, who had destroyed the Jewish Temple and ransacked Jerusalem. It took me eight emails over six weeks (four appeared to be ignored) and a phone call to confirm the booking.
I’m up to email four for the lunch venue, a Bedouin tent offering a biblical style experience. I haven’t yet received a reply. Are they not running a business? Isn’t part of that process replying to emails from interested customers?
The expectation of a response to email is almost immediate. And when it’s not forthcoming, minutes, hours or days later, anticipation can turn to stomach churning and stomach churning to despair.
Have our expectations of the timing of a reply become unrealistic? A study from the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering examined over 2 million email users exchanging 16 billion emails over several months. It was the largest study of its kind and it looked at response time. It found 90% of people respond within a day or two of receiving an email to which they plan to respond. The most likely reply time is two minutes, and half will respond in just under an hour. Younger people respond sooner and women take a little longer.
I don’t find these stats comforting. I seem to be surrounded by the other 10%. How many more emails must I send before the Bedouin tent people respond? Where’s the response to my job application? Why haven’t I received the treatment options the doctor said he’d send through last week?
One common reason cited by friends and colleagues for not responding sooner rather than later or not responding at all, is that they don’t wish to be the bearer of bad news. We’ve found someone better for the job. Apparently, ignoring the email, hoping the sender will get the hint or that the issue will be forgotten is deemed an appropriate way of dealing with the matter. Silence is easier than saying no.
But does no response always mean no or that it’s been forgotten? A delay may be caused by an answer being contemplated or further information being sought. Perhaps the doctor is seeking advice from other specialists. This turns problematic if he becomes distracted, most likely with other emails. The first email is temporarily forgotten, time passes. Frustration grows and progress is stalled.
Does sending an email always entitle you to a reply? Unsolicited email that clogs up your inbox is a bane for most. Filters can be used to junk most of these. You can manually delete the rest quickly. I do think most people deserve the courtesy of a response even if it’s only a few words. A simple, “Got it – will respond shortly” or “Thanks, but no thanks” will suffice. Otherwise you’ll end up with a follow-up email in no time. Allocating a space in your day when you have the time to deal with emails is prudent otherwise you’ll end up reading them twice.
I sought out the two people in my world who I gauged would receive a large number of daily emails and asked about their strategy. One works in the not for profit area and receives, on average, 250 emails a day. She deals with the straightforward emails first. Her response time then depends on the sender. Some will receive an immediate response, some she will take time to consider and some will fall off the list. She says a reminder won’t go astray.
The other person, the principal of a large independent school my children attend, receives up to 200 emails a day. He too deals with the easiest first. “Easy ones take precedence over important ones, which is not ideal, but even the important ones all get dealt with,” he stated. He tries to respond to, or at least acknowledge all emails within the same day. “I don’t plan to go to bed until I’ve cleared my inbox.”
Technology exists that enables you to check if your email has at least been read. Do you really want to know? Is it worse if you know someone has read it but hasn’t responded? Frankly, I’d rather know that the answer is no than be left wondering.
I’m sending one final email to the Bedouin tent people and then I’m moving on. I’m not waiting for the doctor. I’m done with email. I’m calling him tomorrow.
(An edited version of this article appeared in The Age on 21 June 2016.)