Online silence: why you shouldn’t answer emails too quickly

Online silence: why you shouldn’t answer emails too quickly

A recurrent complaint I hear when consulting to companies on their email communication woes is Online Silence – the practice of not responding to email in a timely fashion.

True, these days “a timely fashion” may refer to “within five minutes” – the expectation of instant responsiveness has corrupted email’s optimal usage model of asynchronous communications beyond recognition. But in general, many people find it difficult to elicit a reply to their messages when they need it. So imagine my surprise then when a team leader in a hi-tech company told me that his problem was not with replies coming in too late, but in them arriving too early! He then explained: people tend to shoot off a response so fast they don’t invest the time to think about what they’re writing, resulting in a message that is shallow, or erroneous, or not to the point. He’d much rather wait a little longer and get a well thought-out, professionally crafted response.

And this goes to a basic conflict in the usage model: on the one hand, email transport is supposed to flow at the lightning speed of electrons; on the other, email content is generated at the much slower speed of thought, which is not half as fast as the expression is taken to imply. Unfortunately, expectations from email have evolved around the former speed while ignoring the latter. We evidently need to look at the tradeoff more carefully: are we too slow or too fast in writing our email replies?

Answering email too slow:

The “Too slow” side of the tradeoff is obvious. Many email messages revolve around rapid developments and needs and do require a rapid answer, where “rapid” would mean “in about an hour”. Wait much longer and the answer may no longer be relevant, while the problem it was to solve may have gotten out of control (or solved by other means). Achieving such an adequate reaction time is often difficult because of the insane degree of email overload; tools like Knowmail can help one focus on the important messages and may help solve that problem.

Answering email too fast:

The “Too fast” side is more complicated. How fast is too fast? If emergency, then email shouldn’t be used. Overall, it’s simple: too fast is faster than will allow you to benefit your recipient fully. Sure, some emails are easy to answer very quickly, but they may be of lower importance than some that require more time to handle. An optimal strategy should look at the net impact of answering a message fully and well, not at how fast you can get rid of it. And a hastily written message is very often completely counter-productive, especially if you failed to read the first message in full – it is common knowledge that people rarely respond to more than the first question in any email… they hack out a short answer that’s vaguely related to the top of the original message and click SEND.

Here’s the thing to do then:

  • Pick out a message whose answer will have the best value at the moment.
  • Read the received message attentively, from top to bottom.
  • Take a minute to figure out your response.
  • Put your mind into creating an answer with real value for the recipient.
  • Re-read your answer and the original message, to verify you’ve answered everything and that your answer is clear and succinct. (Incidentally, succinct doesn’t mean “faster to write”; Blaise Pascal famously wrote “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter”).
  • Click SEND.

Yes, it will take you a bit longer. But it will help your recipient and your team a lot more. And if you insist on self-interest, remember that it will save you a future round of clarification emails.

Do it!

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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