You know you’ve reached a crisis point in your email backlog when you’re obliged – as I was recently – to confront the following conundrum of electronic etiquette: is it ruder to reply to an email after three months than not to reply at all? On one hand, obviously, not replying is obnoxious. In a perfect world, an email would land in my in-box and I’d reply within the hour (assuming I’m awake). In fact, there was a time, not that long ago, that I was an in-box zero practitioner. By the end of the day, I’d make sure that there were no neglected messages in my account, giving the senders the respect they deserve and giving me a great sense of accomplishment.
In the end, I opted to reply. But even then I didn’t get closure on the matter, because of course the recipient didn’t say she was offended and, this being email, I had no facial expressions or vocal inflections by which to judge. The internet: helping us understand each other less well since 1969.
Three months is, let’s be clear, far too long to delay a reply. But I suspect we’re entering a phase in email’s history when social expectations about such matters have never been more in flux. As the burden of digital communication keeps increasing, “digital minimalism” is entering the mainstream. (I recommend a new book on the topic by the computer science professor Cal Newport.) Some of your email correspondents may be experimenting with radical cutbacks in their online time, while others are simply overwhelmed; some may have removed email from their smartphone years ago, while others run their whole lives from their inbox. Who’s to know what’s “normal” any more?
Now while I agree in principle, I’m having a tough time keeping up with this one-day rule. Like many of us stuck in the land of email overflow, something has happened lately that is making it increasingly difficult to manage ongoing correspondence (and I believe that “something” is life, along with too many connected people). Just today I was sitting with a friend who has thousands of messages in his in-box. He looked at me with fear in his eyes, commenting that he didn’t even have time to read his emails, let alone reply.
Managing email requires a personalized, custom set of rules. On busy days, I reply first to the people who pay me for work (oh, and my mom of course!). It makes sense to me that clients should be a priority, and others can wait. The problem with this practice is that could mean a sender doesn’t get an email back from me for a few days, which I’m sure is a frustrating process and ends up inspiring them to write another email with these dreaded words, “I know you’re busy, just looking for an answer on my message.” Don’t get me wrong, I love these email reminders, but then I am filled with guilt.
While I’ve been focusing on email correspondence, the reality is that messages now come in all shapes and sizes. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, not only do you have to respond to the people in your in-box, you also have to return notes on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. For the average person, this can mean hundreds of replies a day. Who has time? Not me.
I suggest we embrace the fracturing of consensus. The sense of uncertainty should help us see that, in reality, you’ve rarely got a clue why someone took so long to reply (or to do anything else, for that matter). Maybe they’re lazy. But maybe they’re moving house, or just had a baby, or are handling a family crisis, or are struggling with mental illness.
Normally, I like to give tech advice, demystifying the world one blog post at a time, but for this situation I’m at a loss. What do other people think is the perfect path to proper email etiquette? What is the time limit for sending a reply, and what do you do if you can’t keep up? Perhaps in the comments we can find ourselves an answer to a question that is bound to keep haunting us in the future. Oh, and if I owe you an email, I’m working on it, one reply at a time.
Check out my related post: Are the lines of communication blurring?