Email conventions: Getting the timing right

Email might be indispensable to business, but we don’t have good conventions about its timing.

Email writing has become fairly standardised, and most people seem to understand its conventions. These include: it’s a good idea to start with some type of salutation; CAPITALS = SHOUTING; it’s easy to give unintended offense; it’s wise to think before hitting send; and it’s best to think carefully before hitting ‘reply all’.

But timing is more interesting.

  • How long should you wait before replying?
  • If you don’t get a reply to your message, how long should you wait before following up?
  • If you miss a message, should you apologise?
  • How can you time your emails to demonstrate that you are keen, interested, and professional, without being a nuisance?

Email brings with it a three underlying tensions:
  1. You don’t know for sure that your message has been read (or that it reached its destination). The email ‘send’ button is followed by silence. Yes, I know that you can use a ‘read’ notification, but many people find these irritating and refuse to use them.
  2. You often know little about the recipient’s current context. Are they busy? Are they engrossed in meeting a deadline?
  3. You may not know much about the recipient’s opinions about email protocol. Do they handle email as it arrives? Do they only access email once a day? Are they someone who routinely misses email? Are they hopeless correspondents?  

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in touch with many people about new business opportunities. I’m seeking quotes, enquiring about suppliers, researching regulations, and extending my knowledge. I’ve been contacting a lot of people who don’t know me and whom I don’t know.

I’ve been fascinated by the different ways that people respond to email queries. In particular, I’ve been fascinated by two extreme ends of the spectrum. There are people who respond immediately, gushingly, and repetitively (so that I feel somewhat harassed). And there are people who respond very slowly (or not at all) (and I feel dismissed).

As I watch the ways that other people use email, I find that I’m being more thoughtful and planned in my own responses. 

Here are the three things that I now try to do:

  1. Respond within 24 hours (or by the next business day) for most messages. I don’t feel pressured to respond immediately; 24 hours seems reasonable. If the response requires me to do some work that will take longer than 24 hours, I respond with a message letting the recipient know when they’ll hear back from me.
  2. Acknowledge all work messages. I now acknowledge all personalised work messages (that is, messages sent just to me, about some specific work issue). I’ve decided that it’s better to add to the recipient’s in-tray with a quick ‘thanks’ message than to leave any doubt about whether I received their message. I do this to close off conversations, without sending repetitive ‘thanks’ messages (which could get rather silly).
  3. If I miss a message and don’t reply within my 24-hour limit, I send an apology. It’s easy to miss a real work message amongst the trail of junk that comes in every day, particularly when I read email across a few devices. When I make a mistake, I try to acknowledge it and apologise. I do this because I’m impressed when others apologise to me (it usually improves my opinion of them).