What Do We Owe The People Who Reach Out To Us?
Recently, a man I don’t know emailed me about a story I’d written on loneliness.
The message was brief and vague. “I’d like to connect with you regarding the article you wrote,” he said, adding only that “mental health will be a key initiative we are undertaking” at the large marketing firm where he works.
I’m wary of emails with no clear purpose, since they often seem to lead to long conversations and burdensome requests. Still, I meant to respond. Then I got distracted — by other emails, work demands, a rumor that there was cake in a nearby office — and never got around to it.
A few weeks later, he called my office at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, where I write about faculty research. When I didn’t answer, he began irately dialing every department in the directory, first insisting that an admissions officer track me down and ultimately demanding to speak with Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez — presumably to tattle on me for my email truancy.
People across the building were miffed, and I was mortified that I had set all this in motion. Obviously, it was my fault for not answering the man’s email promptly. But was it? What response do we actually owe the sender of an unsolicited email?
There’s no question that email is a growing burden for many of us. A 2019 study by management professors at the University of Arkansas, Michigan State, Florida International University and the University of Massachusetts found that the average “knowledge worker” — someone who gets paid, at least in part, for thinking — spends more than a quarter of their workweek reading and responding to email.
And while answering email may not seem to require much effort, it is in fact one of our most taxing duties, the researchers found. “E-mail is a unique job demand in that it entails a high workload combined with lower levels of control due to strict workplace norms around being responsive,” they write.
That makes it one of the biggest sources of workplace overload, taking a toll on our wellbeing and our overall productivity. Managers, especially, are drained by the demands of their inboxes, which siphon time away from more critical tasks, the researchers note.
Luckily for me, it’s a battle Dean Rodriguez can relate to.
“I triage aggressively and periodically go on maniacal purges to get to inbox zero. It’s not pretty,” Rodriguez says. “By triage, I mean that I respond right away to anything urgent and to key stakeholders with whom I work closely. This is about half the emails I receive. For the others, I tend to let them linger while I think about how I want to respond. That’s the big delay.”
Still, many of us expect a response to every email we send — and a quick one, at that. Some people argue that it is simply common courtesy to reply to those who reach out to you. All of them. And while the digital age may be to blame for a general decline in courtesy, the fault ultimately rests with email-ignorers — like me.
“In recent years, it’s become more and more ‘acceptable’ to not respond promptly to e-mails, or worse, to not respond at all,” writes Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist who heads an executive development firm. “Listen, I get it. We’re all busy. But that’s no excuse for bad behavior. Response time is a non-verbal cue that speaks volumes about who we are, for better or for worse.”
“Responding in a timely manner shows that you are conscientious — organized, dependable and hardworking,” Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. Not responding quickly — or at all — means you are… not.
“Yes, we’re all overwhelmed with email. One recent survey suggested that the average American’s inbox has 199 unread messages,” writes Grant. “But volume isn’t an excuse for not replying. Ignoring email is an act of incivility.”
It may also mean you’re bad at your job. Researchers have found that one of the surest signs of an ineffective manager is being slow to answer emails, Grant explains. Meanwhile, some of the busiest people are the fastest to respond — and they see slow replies as a red flag in people they might want to work with.
Molly Beck, founder of the podcast creation website Messy.fm and author of the networking guide Reach Out, responds almost instantly to emails, and expects the contractors and vendors she hires to do the same.
“My email philosophy is: If you are on top of your inbox, you are on top of your life,” she wrote me — approximately 90 seconds after I emailed her. “It's perfectly fine to respond to an email with ‘Thanks for reaching out, but this isn’t a fit/not something I need right now/not something I have the bandwidth to do right.’ Responding to every email just means you respond to every email, not that you say yes to every request.”
Rodriguez agrees that every email — unless it’s an unsolicited sales pitch — deserves a response. The problem is that responding to everyone cuts down on the time you can devote to each answer.
“I think we’re all uncomfortable with the fundamental tradeoff. You either offer shorter, less useful responses to everyone or just don’t respond at all to a significant number of emails,” he says. “I’ve been trying to emulate a few people I know who handle this well and I’ve been half successful at best. They do a good job of the one-liner responses: ‘Thanks Peter — I’ll get back to you soon.’ Or ‘Interesting. I appreciate your work on this.’ As a response to a lengthy email, these can seem cold or like a subtle brush-off. But I’ve come to see them as the ‘something vs. nothing’ tradeoff a busy inbox creates.”
On the other hand, there are those who believe no response is a legitimate response, just as an Irish goodbye is a perfectly acceptable way to leave a party. In its extreme form, however, not responding becomes ghosting: disappearing from an ongoing conversation in which the other person rightfully expects a response — like when a recruiter actively pursues a job candidate and then cuts off communication completely, never to email again.
More recently, workers themselves have begun ghosting employers, leaving a job without giving notice and not responding to calls, emails or texts, which economists have taken as a sign that the economy is so strong they have no trouble finding new opportunities — and no qualms about burning bridges with previous employers.
This seems like a bad idea, professionally speaking. But any unanswered email could potentially do professional harm. That’s because our default response to being ignored is to take offense — even if the silence was unintentional, says Terri Kurtzberg, a management professor at Rutgers Business School. Often, it’s simply a question of whether the person you emailed was free to respond the moment she received the email — because if not, countless other requests for attention have likely buried it since then.
“Our research shows that attention is more and more divided, and there are more and more requests for our attention. That means we have to prioritize more and that more things slip — and that there are enough other demands for our attention that if one does slip, it doesn’t rise to the surface again,” Kurtzberg says. “It’s coupled with the fact that so many more people can figure out how to get access to us: People can find your email and send you direct requests so easily.”
Personality types factor into our response times, as well. “There are people who will answer within 20 seconds, no matter what time of the day or night, and there are people I call a black hole: You’ll just never ever hear back,” she says.
The 20-second answerers, naturally, tend to expect others to behave the same way. The black holes may not give it much thought.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s a particularly crazy idea making sure every email I receive gets a response within 48 hours, maximum,” Elena Lockett, a marketing assistant at the British firm FM Outsource, writes. “Surely this is the norm?”
But that’s exactly the problem: There are no norms when it comes to email etiquette, Kurtzberg says. “This is one place where our society doesn’t have a rule yet,” she explains. “It’s a little bit of a free-for-all.”
It’s up to each of us to set our own standards regarding who to respond to, and when. There are no right or wrong answers, she says.
But don’t we owe a response to everyone? Is it uncivil to ignore someone, even when it’s a stranger who wants to connect with you — and you don’t?
“Personally, I think it’s not civilized to demand attention from a stranger without an invitation to do so,” Kurtzberg says. “I find telemarketers uncivil in interrupting my day, so I don’t find it uncivil when I hang up on them.”
Of course, there’s no established set of etiquette standards for email senders, either, but it always helps to be considerate of the recipient’s time.
“My least favorite emails are the ones that end with ‘Thoughts?’” Rodriguez says. “Seriously? It always seems like a challenge to show off my insightfulness. Come see me, let’s have a drink or go for a walk. That’s the environment for sharing my thoughts. In an email? It’s either skip all the really good stuff or spend all day working on one message.”
In an ideal world, we’d communicate more in person, or at least by phone. But it takes more initiative to start a conversation those ways, and often a lot more time. Email, however, is still a step above texting, where curt replies are the norm — but there’s an even greater expectation of a quick reply.
“I get more and more texts from work colleagues, and I think this has something to do with the acceptable tone on texts. You’re expected to write one or two lines and that’s good, but there is also the imagined finger-roll-on-desk urgency of a reply,” Rodriguez says. “Sadly, my emoji game is awful. There are no easy wins, it seems.”
Jennifer Latson is a senior editor at Rice Business and the author of “The Boy Who Loved Too Much,” a nonfiction book about a genetic disorder sometimes called the opposite of autism. She finds email difficult.