The Magazine

Apres Spam

The next email crisis.

Sep 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 03 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Here's how it works. You get an email (maybe longer or more complicated than average, or from someone you don't know); you have no time to respond right now, but you mean to answer--but other emails stack up, and you answer those first--but you still plan to reply--but more emails keep arriving. . . . Meanwhile the sender is wondering: Is he ignoring me on purpose? (I'll cross him off my list and forget about it.) Did he mean to reply, but has since forgotten? (Resend my message.) Or does he still mean to reply and just hasn't gotten around to it? (Don't get mad or resend.) All three possibilities are real, and happen all the time.

As volume rises, more email conversations trail off into nothing for unknown reasons, the medium is devalued further, and the problem gets worse--people set even less store by a mail message, send one out on even less provocation, volume rises, more email conversations trail off into nothing for unknown reasons, the medium is devalued even further.

LUCKILY, there are good ways to deal with an unreliable medium like email--but not enough people know or use them. (And the techniques won't work unless many people use them.) These techniques can't add more hours to your day, but can make email fairly transparent. This is a behavior (not technology) issue--but today's software makes the problem worse, because the obvious techniques (which involve "acknowledgments" and "time outs") require a kind of time awareness that today's software mostly discourages.

Still, a prediction: Protocols like the ones proposed below will be commonplace before long. Probably some large company (having reinvented them for itself) will promulgate them for employees, and we'll be off. I don't claim that my rules are original; I only claim that (so far as I know) nobody uses them. (The "email etiquette" literature is so huge and boring, who can master it all? But chances are, these rules are already out there somewhere.) And the rules don't always apply. They are irrelevant to ongoing conversations that have found their own rhythm, and to exchanges between friends who know what to expect. Email conversations among many parties raise special questions. But you have to start somewhere.

1. THE ACKNOWLEDGMENT RULE: Acknowledge in haste, respond at leisure. When you receive an email, acknowledge it within 24 hours if you can; take a week if you must, but more than that is (ordinarily) too long. An acknowledgment is not an answer. It's a one-liner, something like "thanks for your note; I'll be in touch soon." It tells the sender that his message has got through and that you plan to answer it some day. Once you've acknowledged a message, you should answer within (say) two weeks of sending the acknowledgment.

2. THE RESEND RULE: If an acknowledgment or (later) an answer doesn't arrive in good time, resend your message verbatim. The receiver's time limits dictate the sender's. If your message hasn't been acknowledged a week later, resend it. If the acknowledgment arrives but no answer has materialized two weeks after that, resend. So you get (at the outside) two chances to restart a sputtering conversation--and that's it. (When you resend a message, a discreet "2" or "3" in the subject line should be enough to let the receiver know what's going on.)

Where did the "24 hours, one week, two weeks" time limits come from? I just made them up. Maybe they're wrong. All I can say in their defense is that I've been a faithful emailer since 1982, and they strike me as about right.

If a message arrives and you can answer right away-- be my guest, and forget the acknowledgment. But feel free to acknowledge (and not answer until later) any ordinary email, no matter how brief. A short email isn't necessarily easy to answer. Any substantive answer costs time and concentration.

We can all sympathize with those desperate characters who attach "sender asked to be notified" messages to their outbound email, but such messages have no place in polite society. (When you read one of these booby-trapped emails, a note pops up: "Sender asked to be notified when you read this message--okay to send a notification?") No good. "May I spy on your activities and send back a report?" will never be a tactful question no matter how delicately you phrase it.

Consider how my rules work in a few common situations.

You overlook an email entirely. Especially common in the spam age, but happens regularly for other reasons too. Under my protocol, the sender waits a week; having got no acknowledgment, he then resends--without worrying whether he's waited long enough, whether you want to ignore him and he is intruding on your splendid isolation, etc. The conversation gets a second chance.