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Do Emails Demand Immediate Responses?

The participants at my business etiquette talk were busy solving a “difficult situation” exercise, and I took a moment to sit with one of the organizers of the event.

“I hope you’re going to talk about email,” he said. He was particularly curious about the rules about responding to emails. He, personally, was frustrated that people expect an immediate response to an email. I concurred.

Typically, the book on responding to emails is either the same day or within twenty-four hours. Some businesses have set even shorter response expectations like responding within four hours. Certainly, if the company you work for has such an expectation, you should abide by that rule. If not, the same day or the twenty-four hour guideline is a safe bet.

The problem with the general standard is that people’s expectations have changed. Here’s why I say that. I don’t set my email notification to beep every time a new email arrives in my inbox. Instead, I use an approach suggested by time management experts. I take a couple of breaks from work in the morning and in the afternoon to batch process emails. That way, when I’m working on a project or writing a blog or editing a book, my focus stays on the work I’m doing—no interruptions. When I do check my email, my focus is on each message: understanding the request, crafting a reply, checking it for errors, confirming the “TO” field, reproofing the “Subject” field and listening for tone before I hit the send button.

Every now and then I’ll get a call from someone: “Peter, why didn’t you respond to my email? It’s important.” And therein lies the conundrum. Their expectation has become: “My email demands your immediate attention.” This is obviously counter to my approach which is, “I don’t want emails constantly interrupting my concentration and focus on work.” In my view, if what you need is so important or you require an immediate response, pick up the phone and call me.

And it’s not just the way that I manage my email that could delay a response. The email could fall victim to spam blockers or a slow internet day or a technical problem with the email provider. Technology isn’t perfect. With a phone call, the person has a better chance of getting a response immediately or sooner than with an email. The added benefit of a call is that we can have a discussion and come to a conclusion more quickly and efficiently than we can by engaging in a stream of back and forth emails. Emails are great for who, what, when, and where. It is not the best communication tool when the discussion calls for opinions or exploring the “why” of a situation.

My advice? If time is of the essence, pick up the phone. Otherwise, don’t expect a reply until the end of the day, or even before the twenty-four hours are up.

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