Must we acknowledge emails?
March 31, 2014 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Am I out of bounds here or is it an accepted email etiquette norm now that acknowledging an email is optional?

There are a few people in my (professional) life, maybe an increasing number, to whom I will email a question or a work request and then sit and wait days, sometimes weeks to hear from them until they have an answer for me, or have finished the task. Until then, radio silence.

Am I being curmudgeonly to expect an acknowledgement within, say, 24 hours, that they got the email, understand the question/request, and will get back to me? It feels like rudeness but I know stuff evolves and I was wondering if anyone else either does this or has it done to them, and how they feel about it.

All I'm looking for here is "Thanks for your email. I'll get back to you." Without this I don't know if they saw my email, or how long they expect it will be until they respond. This really bugs me. Am I wrong?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders to Human Relations (45 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It really bugs me too. I agree that a professional should try to send some sort of response within 24 hours. Unfortunately, few of the professionals that I correspond with recently seem to meet that standard.
posted by dcjd at 1:36 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

if all emails required mandatory acknowledgment, there would be infinite email chains of acknowledgment.
posted by bruce at 1:38 PM on March 31, 2014 [48 favorites]

It probably really depends on workplace culture. I will say that where I work, in higher ed, this is pretty much the norm. I rarely get an 'acknowledgement' email. And I have found myself as well falling into the habit of only replying once I get the thing done.

Part of it is just email fatigue. Everyone now gets so many freaking emails that courtesy responses can sometimes seem just like more email circling. I can see both sides. I'm not sure if there is a right way really.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:39 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you need acknowledgement within 24hrs, state that in your email. Otherwise I will not know how to prioritize your request, and it will be looked at when I look at it. If something is very urgent, IM me, or give me a call to confirm I've seen the request and understand your deadline and can execute it.

If I spent my time responding to all the requests for data/information/analysis that I got, I would never get any of the work actually done.
posted by larthegreat at 1:39 PM on March 31, 2014 [41 favorites]

I think there was a big etiquette push to get rid of "inbox clutter" and contentless emails, and emails that just say "I read your email and I'm working on it" is considered contentless (it's sort of the default state).

If you don't know how long a task will take, are you asking in the email for an estimate to complete? That would be my first step and would give them a content hook to reply to.
posted by muddgirl at 1:40 PM on March 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I really think this is a personal preference thing. I find that sort of email pretty annoying and unnecessary in most cases. I think the best idea is to just follow up in a few days if you have expected a response by a certain time and haven't gotten it yet.
posted by something something at 1:40 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't send acknowledgement emails. The 30 seconds it takes to reply is 30 fewer seconds I could be spending getting you the answer. Or, more likely, 30 seconds with a disruption of 10 minutes because I've changed windows and engaged with my keyboard. (I used to send acknowledgement responses to emails, and not doing it is learned behavior for me...I realized it really throws me off track to sit and respond with useless (to me) fluff.)

If you want to know that I've received your email, send it with a read receipt. Otherwise, assume I'm working on it and ask me again tomorrow if you must.
posted by phunniemee at 1:40 PM on March 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't think you're wrong, per se - I can certainly see the advantages to the type of reply you want - but I think this sounds pretty out of touch. There is the practical issue that bruce mentions, and there's also the fact that the majority of people neither (a) expect nor (b) provide immediate responses to emails. So your way might be the most polite, but it clashes with modern and accepted email etiquette expectations.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:41 PM on March 31, 2014

This is why read receipts were invented.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:41 PM on March 31, 2014 [12 favorites]

It's ok to send a follow-up! This happens to me all the time and it really bugs me. When I get an email that requires a response, I like to reply with an acknowlegement and provide a timeline for when I'll get them a complete response.

When I send people an email that requires a response and don't hear anything for a few days, I always follow-up. Maybe it's rude of me to check-up on them, but I think it was rude of them to not provide a timeline if they wouldn't be responding right away.

I don't expect a response or acknowlegement for every e-mail. But if I'm expecting an answer to a question or a project to be completed I will ask for a timeframe for completion in my initial email and I will follow-up in a few days if I don't hear back.
posted by Arbac at 1:42 PM on March 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

An response that just says "Thanks for your email. I'll get back to you," gives you no new information. You still don't know when they'll have a chance to work on your thing. All you know is that the email arrived. (Which you could already be pretty sure of.)

I personally treat my email as my to-do list. So an email stays in my inbox until the task is accomplished. If you need something back from me quickly, give me a timeline in your original email. "I'd like to move on to step B by Wednesday, let me know if that doesn't work for you." Then I'll usually have the task done by Wednesday and if I don't you have an easy excuse to check in with me.

I'll also happily respond if the original email says "can you get back to me with a timeframe of how long you think this might take?" But if you don't ask a question that needs me to get back to you before I actually do the task, then why would I waste an email just to let you know I got your email?
posted by MsMolly at 1:47 PM on March 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't think it's curmudgeonly of you, but it would be really unrealistic in my office/field. I never get them, and I never send them. If I'm asking someone a question about a thing and it's time-sensitive, I let them know when I need to know by. If there's no firm date, I follow up within a few days/week, depending.
posted by rtha at 1:52 PM on March 31, 2014

I don't provide acknowledgement emails either. As others have stated, taking the time to respond to every inquiry is time taken away from actually completing the task(s).

Can it be frustrating? Sure. But assuming your workplace understands what is genuinely urgent and what isn't (and tags their emails appropriately), I have found that acknowledgement emails simply aren't needed.
posted by stubbehtail at 1:54 PM on March 31, 2014

Cultural, I suspect. Every one in the upper echelons of my grouo responds within 24 of their hours or apologizes for being slow to respond.

People who expect to climb the ladder learn to respond - either by responding to emails or by setting a team expectation that team lead will send status emails each week or make sure project dashboard is never out of date by more than X days or whatever.

(Their hours means that if someone in Japan reads my email at the end of their day, they might not respond until the end of their next day.)

We also use a lot of "if X is true, we will do Y and do not need a response from you." But usually they respond with "X is true, thank you for doing Y."
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:57 PM on March 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I still get acknowledgement replies from every single one of my colleagues in Africa, and they expect it from me. What I personally MUCH prefer is a follow up a few days later gently asking if my email was received and if I could respond on xyz matter. When traveling or in meetings I have a bad habit of skimming messages but not actually doing anything about them.

Nthing the above that emails with requests to do things but no timeline (eg: can we make a call about something or another sometime?) are the first messages to drop down my mental priority list. Deadlines are wonderful!

Oh - and 24 hours is a bare minimum in my office since many of us travel. Sadly a week is becoming the new norm. Anything that needs doing faster I skype, call or deal with face to face unless I'm on a plane somewhere else - then it just has to wait.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:03 PM on March 31, 2014

I try to go through all my email once a weekday. If I go through my email at the beginning of one day and the end of the next, it might leave the possibility for 36 hours to pass by. And if I can't immediately resolve a request, I will reply to let people know what's going on.

So with the proviso that 24 hours is maybe slightly too short a time for this expectation, I don't think an expectation that a professional will respond to your inquiry in some way within a day or so is unreasonable.
posted by grouse at 2:04 PM on March 31, 2014

Different organizations have completely different etiquette and expectations regarding email use. I've freelanced for a ton of different companies of many sizes over the years; in some an acknowledgement like what you describe would be expected, in others it would be considered a borderline-rude bit of inbox clutter.

Personally, if a task is not urgent, is going to take a relatively short period of time (hours or days), and is part of my normal day-to-day, and I don't need clarification on any point, I often won't bother to send an acknowledgement until the task is done (unless I know I'm working with someone who expects such things.) If it's going to be weeks before I have a real response to an email... well, I'm actually having a hard time imagining any task that would realistically take weeks but which requires no followup or ongoing communication in the interim, so I honestly don't know what I'd do in that situation.
posted by ook at 2:05 PM on March 31, 2014

It depends not only on corporate culture, but often the culture of the individual project, I've found.

On my current project, I find that I often have to follow up an e-mail with another e-mail, and then a phone call, and finally (if possible) a visit to their office. I send a lot e-mails now that end with of "if I do not receive a response from you by such-and-such date, I will do X, Y, and Z." Sometimes I'll get a phone call saying they got my e-mail but please do X, A, and Z instead. Often I'll get no response, do X, Y, and Z, and then get asked why I did X, Y, and Z when I should have done X, A, and Z instead. "Well, I said in my e-mail I'd do X, Y, and Z if I didn't hear from you by Thursday." "Oh."

Another project I was on (same company) had people who responded to e-mails promptly, but preferred using the internal corporate IM system.
posted by tckma at 2:05 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I receive hundreds of work emails per day. If I had to respond to each one within 24 hours whether I had more information for them or not, that would be my full time job and I would never actually fulfill any of the requests. I read all of the emails and triage them. As mentioned above, if you really require a quick response (even if it's merely an 'ack'), you should state that explicitly, preferably in your subject line.
posted by telegraph at 2:12 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, I had no idea people did "acknowledgement emails". If I get an urgent email, I will respond to it urgently. If it seems to be non-time-dependent, I will respond when I have an answer. If the sender might reasonably expect my answer to take a week or so, then it never occurred to me to send an earlier email before that time. I'll have to rethink my practices in case this is bugging people.
posted by lollusc at 2:15 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know Dilbert is something of a bad word around these parts, but from reading your question, I can't help but wonder if this is relevant.
posted by namewithoutwords at 2:20 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, I'm surprised by many of the answers here. I had anywhere between 200-400 emails per day at my last job (account management), and I answered every one that specifically requested an answer from me.

+ If I knew the answer then or it would take me less than five minutes to drum up an answer, I would answer with the answer.
+ If I didn't know the answer, I would (within five minutes of receipt) loop in whoever could help or tell the sender I was working on it and would have an answer by X.
+ If I still didn't have the answer, I would write again or call within four hours to set a new expectation.

The idea was that if our demanding GM asked the status of something, I could safely tell her that I'd been in contact. That was the status quo for all of us in the group. Responsiveness is important.

Now that I've moved on, I continue the pattern and expect the same from my coworkers (but am constantly, though quietly, disappointed).
posted by mochapickle at 2:20 PM on March 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

In spite of itself, my employer (a very large one, known for its glacial pace of institutional change) has begun to offer many alternatives to email, thank dog. If someone needs an answer from me, they use the xmpp (chat) client and get their answer. I have taken to keeping email closed for much of the day because 80% of it is either spam or CYA from people whose A I have no desire to be implicated in C-ing, and that simply takes me away from actual work. If it's really urgent, I use the phone (and I really detest talking on the phone). Excess email is a scourge that should die in a fire. Insofar as that is true, yes, I'm under no obligation to even read your email, much less respond on your timeline. I also have been known to refuse to send read receipts. As a data point, I get anywhere from 100 - 300 emails per day.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:39 PM on March 31, 2014

My job involves a LOT of email. Generally if I need some sort of confirmation, I say so in the email, i.e. "Please confirm that you received this email." I try to respond to every email that I get just to say "I'm looking into this and will respond," especially if I know it will take me more than a few hours to do so. But sometimes that just isn't feasible.
posted by anotheraccount at 2:48 PM on March 31, 2014

I am spotty about replying to emails, but I always feel like that's a bad thing - so no, I'd expect that getting responses to emails (e.g. "got it, will get back to you in a day or so") is entirely reasonable.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:52 PM on March 31, 2014

Personal and work emails are really different.

I don't answer work emails unless I have an answer or can say when the answer will arrive. So either the answer to your question, or "I'll let you know after I talk to [person] at [time]."

Personal emails that are just catching up get an acknowledgement within 24-48 hours along the lines of "I'm really busy and want to give your kind letter the attention it deserves, so bear with me until Saturday." You really should offer an email within a day or so to your friends and family just to prove you're alive and not ignoring them.

Also, email is for stuff that is not time-sensitive enough to use the phone. If you need an answer that badly, call me.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:56 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

> This is why read receipts were invented.

Nothing annoys me more than someone who sets read reply on every message they send, no matter how trivial (since I don't automatically send one). YMMV.
posted by kjs3 at 3:03 PM on March 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

You're not being curmudgeonly, you're being passive-aggressive.

You say you expect people to A) confirm that they got the email, B) confirm that they understand the question/request, and C) confirm that they will get back to you, and to do so without you asking specifically for that information in your email.

Expectation A, like others have pointed out, would lead to clutter. I've lost count of the times I had to do a mass search-and-delete of emails consisting of "thx" and/or "ok."

Expectation B sounds a tad condescending to me. I don't feel like I need to let everyone who emails me know that I can understand their question or request.

Expectation C is related to B. If I understand from reading your question/request that your work will be affected if I don't get back to you, of course I'll get back to you. If I don't, that's not a problem with email etiquette per se, but with interpersonal communication, accountability and organizational efficiency. But you say all you're looking for is, "Thanks for your email. I'll get back to you." It seems more like you're seeking personal validation. If there is a productivity issue with people not responding, ask for a response, and better yet, give a reason why you'll be screwed if you don't get a response.

To me, a huge part of professionalism is clear communication. That means making your expectations explicit. If you want something you're not getting from your colleagues, ask for it.
posted by univac at 3:07 PM on March 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

I despise read receipts, and ignore every single one of them on principle, unless the email specifically asks for that response.

If you're not getting the response you want by sending an email, you should follow up in another arena. Or have the conversation first and then follow up with an email. I often find that it takes me less time to have a discussion on the phone than to write out an email about it anyway.
posted by hootenatty at 4:13 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've found this depends on the particular office culture, and can vary quite a bit:

At one company there were formal, enforced and penalized policies for work ticket processing, where the recipient had to "ack" receipt of a new request ASAP (in practice, within the hour), and follow up with a completion ETA (or request for more info, etc) by the end of the business day. All this just for internal customers!

At the other extreme, I've seen offices where management above a certain level simply don't read their email. They've been copied on so many group lists and automatically generated notifications that they get dozens of meaningless emails every hour. They assume that if anything is important someone will arrive at their office, or at least call their secretary.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:25 PM on March 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

While I agree, giving you an idea of when you can expect the answer is polite. Can we all agree not to send any emails that only contain the words:

Thank you!

Clog up my damn email with that shit. Now get off my lawn!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:27 PM on March 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

You're like 60% wrong and 40% right.

Most emails don't need a response. However, for people who email in lieu of using the phone (have weird hours, no phone, whatever...) a prompt response shouldn't necessarily be unexpected.

I think it also really depends on context. "Hi I dropped off some papers today, did you get them and will you get back to me?" is an okay thing to ask. With less urgent things that don't have deadlines, whatevs.

Just call them if you're that anxious.
posted by quincunx at 4:51 PM on March 31, 2014

Our Asian colleagues sent acknowledgement emails that consisted of the words

"Well received with thanks"

You can add "Will advise further upon consult with parties" or "Further analysis is needed, and will advise timeline."

I was grateful for the acknowledgement email, which closed an open loop for me.
posted by ohshenandoah at 5:01 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unless there is a specific reason or request to reply i dont bother. I read requests as commands and put them in tasks. In my mind your not asking me to do xyz your telling me to do it in the form of a question.
In my office even asking for a response won't get you far. If your looking for confirmation it's much better to do it via phone.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:19 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

When receiving a request, my guideline for responding with an acknowledgement even though I don't yet have an answer is if it falls into one of the following cases:
1. Something very time sensitive; eg, needs a response within a couple of hours or less; or
2. Something big/important with a particular deadline; or
3. Something that falls outside of my normal duties.

In any of these cases the acknowledgement reply is very brief, sometimes consisting literally of just "Ack." This is accepted as a response almost universally in my workplace.

Anything else gets no response until I'm done or one is available.
posted by Simon Barclay at 6:20 PM on March 31, 2014

In my experience, nobody who writes, "I got your e-mail, I will write back later" ever, ever does it. Nobody. I'd rather hear from them when they have something to say.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:00 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Agreed that people who say "I'll get back to you!" often don't anyway. It used to bother me to do this (too Minnesota nice) but I just follow-up with people now when I need the answer or feel they have had sufficient time to figure it out (or need to be reminded). Usually people aren't angry if you're polite about it, they realize they forgot/put it off.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:41 PM on March 31, 2014

"I read your email and I'm working on it" is considered contentless

It's absolutely not contentless. E-mail gets lost all the frickin time, accidentally spamfiled, overlooked, etc. An acknowledgement says you, the sender, no longer have to worry that the message has gone into a black hole. I think this is _very_ important.

Sometimes I'll close a message with a request that the recipient let me know he's received it. Especially in a business context, it's unreasonable to trust that e-mail always arrives. Until I receive an acknowledgement, I assume the e-mail hasn't been received.

I do not then acknowledge the acknowledgement, so there's no infinite loop of e-mailing.
posted by amtho at 8:14 PM on March 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

You have to follow up with some people.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:37 PM on March 31, 2014

People who do this are obnoxious. I have people under me who repeatedly did this and I told them I need responses so I know they got the email and are working on the answer. It's one thing if I send an email that is an FYI. I get tons of emails I do not respond to.

It is another thing if I send an email asking for something to be done by the end of the day. If I don't get a response after a certain amount of time, I start to worry that they didn't get it, haven't started on the request, and I need to drop my current projects to do the work to get the response in time. It's just annoying. It took several times of asking, but now my subordinates reply to my emails. I explained that it's helpful to know they saw it and I can expect a response in X amount of time rather than wonder if they ever got it.

You are not wrong, and I would start following up after a day and say, "Did you have any questions about my request? When do you think you'll have that by?" You can also just be more direct, "Hey, can you confirm when you receive my emails just so I know it's being handled?"

I always reply to emails, "Sure thing, I'll pull something together." "Sure, I can send something by the end of the week." Or even, "I'll try my best. You may want to follow up with me in a few days if I haven't sent anything."
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:46 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

From another perspective, people who send time-sensitive tasks over email rather than using a synchronous communication system like telephone or IM are the annoying ones, because some people consciously only check my email once or twice a day. It's a common suggestion to boost productivity.

But again, this seems to be heavily defined by work culture.
posted by muddgirl at 9:03 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think there was a big etiquette push to get rid of "inbox clutter" and contentless emails, and emails that just say "I read your email and I'm working on it" is considered contentless (it's sort of the default state).

Yep. I was actually chided by my supervisor early in my career for getting so involved in email, sending such long, in-depth emails and putting so much emotion into them. I also recall reading around that time that it was more professional not to send little "Thanks!" emails for everything and/or lots of little status-update emails. So I cut that out, and I tried to think things through and simplify as much as possible before sending out any emotion-laden mega emails.

Even then, though, I continued to email a lot until my workplace switched to a new email system that required me to use the Mail app, whose interface I hate and which requires lots of manual dragging in order to make sent emails show up in my webmail account. (And don't even get me started on our email server, which often silently fails to deliver emails that are too large or that it miscategorizes as spam or that arrive on a given Tuesday...) Because of those factors, I've stopped replying to most work email unless there's a specific question asked that I have to answer, a specific document attached that I need to edit and return, and/or a misconception that needs clarification. And sometimes in the first case, I'll even prefer to pick up the phone now before emailing; in the second case, I don't reply until I'm done editing the attachment; and in the third case, I'll often decide it's not worth getting into a potential misunderstood-tone war via email just for the sake of a clarification.

I'm probably erring on the side of too little communication of late, but the mere idea that someone might expect me to reply to everything I receive kind of preemptively raises my hackles, especially since a lot of what I get is demanding PR spam that doesn't even spell the name of the product it's peddling correctly. These days, I get so much email on a daily basis that I immediately print out any email that includes an update I need to add to our work product, lest it get lost in my inbox (and that's even with copious labeling).

I like getting replies to my own email queries, but I send so few of them—and if it's urgent and I haven't gotten a reply, I'll just check back in. We're all busy, so I just build that into my process.
posted by limeonaire at 9:07 PM on March 31, 2014

The rule I use these days is this: People who I normally correspond with do not get acknowledgment emails except about very important, time-sensitive things. People who I do not normally correspond with get an acknowledgment if there's some action I'm expected to be taking. I definitely would not want acknowledgments from people who I was working with constantly, though, because it's just one more email that I have to figure out what to do with, one more bit of clutter--if the acknowledgment is important, it's worth it. If it's something where I can follow up later if I don't hear back from you in a reasonable period, I don't need you to say anything now.
posted by Sequence at 11:55 PM on March 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Circling back to the OP, if what you want is a heads-up from the person you've emailed saying they're on it, ask for it. "Please confirm you understand the task and let me know when you expect I can have the answer." Or phrase your request in terms of a question that requires a response, e.g. "Can you help me with X?" In my office, requests from my bosses usually come in terms of requests, "We are doing X, can you research Y" or "Do you have time to look into..." Though this is culture-dependent, when viewed in terms of my relationship with my bosses, these emails are partially "true" questions -- I can respond with "I don't have time" if that's the case -- but they are also pinging for the sort of acknowledgment emails you're looking for. My usual response is either a clarification question or just a simple "On it."
posted by craven_morhead at 11:10 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

At my company, acknowledgement emails are discouraged. Although, if I needed a more immediate response I would be using IM, so that factors into the equation.

I think the short answer is there is no single "email etiquette", and different companies and industries have different norms. If you are working with a regular group of people, you could simply tell them you want a response in general. If not, consider including that as a direct request in the email itself. Either one of those would work with me, but absent those I would never send an acknowledgement email as to me thats a waste of both of our time.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:27 PM on April 1, 2014

« Older Carseat-free Travel in Europe?   |   I want to sing! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.