Email Etiquette
February 11, 2005 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Email.etiquette.filter - How do you all battle those annoying email relationships in which responses never come or questions you ask never get answered? Email etiquette seems to be lacking amongst many people and I have some acquaintances that send out emails, but never bother replying, or when they reply, never answer my questions or acknowledge my response. The obvious answer is to just ignore them or lower my standards, but have any of you found a method to improve the email etiquette of your friends? It can be so annoying!
posted by brheavy to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Question: Are these friends any more polite/responsive with phonecalls or in person? (i.e., is this specifically about email?
posted by nobody at 9:12 AM on February 11, 2005

Response by poster: Yeah, it is specifically an email thing.
posted by brheavy at 9:14 AM on February 11, 2005

I think this is a losing fight. I confess to doing this on occasion, not out of malice, but simply because I get so much email. Email has reduced the barriers to communication to almost zero- anyone (within reason) can send me an email, very easily. Stuff gets lost in the shuffle sometimes.
posted by mkultra at 9:18 AM on February 11, 2005

Never ask two questions in an email.
posted by callmejay at 9:19 AM on February 11, 2005

I will second callmejay's answer, and I will add that you should make the subject line echo your highest priority/request. We are more likely to forget about an email called "hi" or "stuff" than we are to forget "have you ordered the envelopes?" or the less naggy "project status: envelopes".
posted by whatnot at 9:26 AM on February 11, 2005

I'm one of those bad-at-email people. I can testify from personal experience that this is a cumulative problem. Because I am bad at responding to e-mail, e-mails tend to accumulate in my inbox, which causes older e-mails to scroll of the screen--and if I don't see them, I'm less likely to respond to them. So, friends who send me polite reminders (and thereby reappear in my inbox) are more likely to get a response.

If there is one particular person whose poor e-mail responses are creating a particular problem, it may be worth discussing this on the phone (in a nonjudgemental way, since people seem to be most open to improvement when they don't think they're actually being asked to improve.) As in, "You're really good about responding to phone calls and I always enjoy our face-to-face conversations, but I noticed that it seems to be harder for you to respond to e-mails. Is there anything I can do to make it easier?"

Or--if their poor e-mail skills have caused you real problems--you can always be honest and tell them that. If I found that I had inadvertently screwed a friend by not responding to an e-mail, I would be extra-careful about responding in the future.
posted by yankeefog at 9:31 AM on February 11, 2005

Best answer: I have this problem at work and it sort of makes me crazy because I really think it's part of my library's failure to communicate in general. I think callmejay has a good point about making email more answerable. I'll also always ask my question twice, once while I'm explaining the situation, and then once on a line by itself. Something like

In your email you said the legislative breakfast has been moved back, I wasn't sure if that meant that my part of it was also being moved to the new time you gave us.

So, do I need to show up at 8 am or not?

Then again, I suspect that you are asking about personal email and not work email. With work email, I nag "did you get my email of 2/10? Do you agree with what I said?" People have a tendency to ask oblique questions [like in my first paragraph above] while others scan for question marks to deal with to manage email. Often I'll ask questions in a totally separate email from my more chatty "this is what I have been up to" email. However, I'm more of a non-answerer than someone who doesn't get responses, so this might help or might not, but things that make me not respond to email include

- people who send two emails that both require follow-ups. Because of how I answer email, I can't easily mush these together and as a result, don't answer either

- People who ask overly broad "how are you?" questions if we're not having that sort of conversation. Unless I'm really close to the person, I tend to think of this type of question as a social nicety than a real question. Something like "did you enjoy your trip to New York" has more of a chance of getting answered, even if the answer is just "yes, it was really fun"

- people who want to get into deep philosophical discussions over email. I used to have time to do this, and I don't now. I'll give my opinion on something, but back and forth banter about the nature of things is no longer something I do over email, I'll use the phone if I do it at all.

- people who give me a hard time about the brevity of my responses or the way I interact with them, or who just plain aren't on my schedule for email are harder for me to deal with. Obviously, I cherish my friends and family, but when my Mom wants to hear from me every morning, she probably isn't going to, and complaining about it makes it less likely that she'll hear from me at all. If her and I work out a schedule that works for both of us, I'll try to stick to it. If I'm being asked to stick on a schedule that is for her convenience only, I'll resent it.

Some people just don't use email for conversation in the same way other people do, and it's hard to find the balance when you want to keep in touch with people but you may not be on the same page. I'm more forgiving about dealing with people's email quirks when I realize they're like that with everyone, though this also means you may not be able to get them to be more communicative with you. Generally I find that the shorter the email -- with the bulk of my correspondents -- and the more targeted the response needs to be, the more likely I'll reply to it.
posted by jessamyn at 9:36 AM on February 11, 2005

You can try using Read Receipts in Outlook (I think the mail has to be internal or to someone else using Outlook/ Exchange) to get an idea of whether things are deleted without being read, but that may just frustrate you more.
posted by yerfatma at 10:01 AM on February 11, 2005

And at least if you're sending email to me, will guarantee you never get a response. I hate Read Receipts with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, and auto-ignore anything that contains them.

I think the answer to the original question is a lot more questions. How important is the information you're looking for? How often does it happen? Do they show better follor through in other channels?

If it's not that important ('how was your trip?') then don't sweat it, you're just driving yourself crazy. If it's information you need, then you need to deal with the fact that your friends aren't good at replying to email and come at them from other, possibly multiple angles. Send them an IM reminder. Give them a call. Whatever gets them to respond.

Also, consider how clearly you've requested a response in your email. If you've asked a clear question, you should be able to expect a response, but not necessarily right away. (For non-professional purposes, I rarely use email for anything that requires a response in less than a week.) If you've only made suggestions that vaguely require a response then it might never be coming. If you feel you need more information be quite clear about what you need, and by when.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:14 AM on February 11, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for taking the time to answer my rather broad question (esp. Jessamyn). It is interesting to hear your take on the issue. My main complaint is not so much work related and not even so much with good friends with whom I have an established correspondence, but rather with those less infrequent emailers such as old friends, relatives and acquaintances, and Jessamyn, your answer really did hit on some of the issues. At this point in my life, I very well might be putting more emphasis on email and it helps to think about it from their perspective, and so currently I am that guy who wants to get into deep discussions over email and while I don’t expect that everyone is going to respond in kind, there are others of whom I would expect more of an effort because of the nature of their original email or question... I think the answer is to lower my expectations amongst those who don’t have the time, desire, or ability for that sort of communication through email.

Most recently, I had a an old friend who found me by googling me and requesting we begin a “correspondence” which then much to my exasperation ended after one exchange [he told me his life story – I replied – never heard back]. Having no way to reach him other than through email, I have also thought that maybe he is a.) dead or injured OR b.) an ex-girlfriend pretending to be a friend through a spoofed hotmail address. Thanks again, everyone.
posted by brheavy at 10:25 AM on February 11, 2005

I hate Read Receipts with the passion of a thousand fiery suns

Yeah, I block them too, just to add a little entropy to the lives of people who need it least.
posted by yerfatma at 11:52 AM on February 11, 2005

In general I find writing personal email both tiring and time-consuming. I much prefer (and can deal with) having conversations in person. Unfortunately my friends who don't live close to me bear the brunt of this, and I feel rather guilty about it. However, I don't want to spend less time on an email than I should, and this ends up often meaning that I don't write the email for a long time. I find communication with people I haven't seen in a while even harder, because it is so difficult for me to know what to say to them - by definition these are people who I don't know well any more. Usually, in person, you can ask "what have you been up to" and this sparks a reasonably long and interactive conversation. This would be a one-line email and feels entirely insufficient to me - and as jessamyn said, this can be a frustratingly vague question to respond to, especially if like me usually, you haven't been up to much that they would want to hear about.

Part of the problem seems to be basically just that I don't want to send an email that isn't perfectly tailored to the conversation/relationship/interaction at hand. Some people just seem to be able to toss off a few sentences in 5 minutes and call that an email, but I can't do that - I worry about hidden interpretations, saying the right thing, not asking insipid/vague questions, making the email sufficiently contentful, etc. Perhaps this is because I spend a lot of time writing otherwise, something that I find a fairly complex and non-trivial task, and I haven't been able to get myself to relax what standards I have for email.

Even though I am roughly the kind of person who is causing you annoyance, I am not sure how someone could get me to respond consistently. I'm tempted to say that if they really want to talk to me, they should call rather than write. In fact, I very regularly call my parents partly because I'm so bad at responding to their email (and prefer talking to emailing anyways). Luckily for me, many (though not all) of my potential correspondents are just as bad as me, or worse. As jessamyn pointed out, asking a question that is specific enough that I'll immediately know how to answer it works well (but may result in less interesting correspondence). Not asking too much in an email also works well (but also may result in less interesting correspondence).

My guess is that your friend really was who they said they were, and read your email with interest. But if someone I hadn't seen in a long time sent me a long email (in response to a long email I'd sent them), I would feel that a serious, lengthy response would be required. The task of doing that without the structure of telling your life story again would be a bit overwhelming. Telling your life story to anyone is easy - but the second step, informal though lengthy correspondence with someone you basically don't know, is not easy at all (at least for people like me). Not only that, but the longer you put it off, the more of a serious, long email is needed in order not to be rude. So some day you may get a response, and it will be filled with profuse apologies about not emailing you sooner, and then the same thing may happen again. I hope you won't take it personally, though. (Actually, what I hope, is that the people with whom I'm in a similar situation with respect to haven't taken it personally - in fact my guilt about these people probably relates to why I wrote so much here instead of writing an email to one of them.)
posted by advil at 12:07 PM on February 11, 2005

Response by poster: advil: [smiling] thanks for that. You are hereby exonerated for all your past email lapses with friends.

I hope my old friend does come around. He probably is struggling for what to say next and I can respect that. It took hours for me to formulate exactly what I had to say, so perhaps I have upped the ante too much for his next reply, and for my expectations. Even that one exchange was worth it I suppose. Your thoughtful response has added a more acceptable excuse to my suspicions of death and deception, and in the end it is one I can understand, so thank you.
posted by brheavy at 1:05 PM on February 11, 2005

Well... have you thought of the possibility that they just don't want to communicate with you any more? I have an old friend from junior high that tracked me down and I made the mistake of responding to her first few e-mails. Now she leaves constant comments on my weblog and sends me long e-mails about her life. I can't bear to tell her: "I'm not the person you knew anymore, and I don't feel the same level of friendship you do." Instead I just passive-aggressively delete the e-mails and hope she'll get the picture. Which, yeah, is horrible and all, I know. But could somebody be trying to send you a message by not, uh, sending you a message?
posted by web-goddess at 3:54 PM on February 11, 2005

I agree with the w-goddess. I have an old college friend and I send him stuff on occasion, but the correspondence can't bear more than about one good email a month before we start ignoring each other.
posted by mecran01 at 9:08 PM on February 11, 2005

My rule-of-thumb: If it's that important, pick up the phone.
posted by mischief at 8:35 AM on February 12, 2005

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