Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Silence of the Emails

Earlier I wrote a (somewhat irritated, I admit) post about unsuitable use of Skype. The main thought is that each communication has its special properties, which could be its strengths or weaknesses — depending on how you use it.

Now, for electronic mail, it has a very strong feature too. It is not in real-time*.

That can be a strength — you don't need to respond immediately, and usually the sender does not expect you to. You can take the time to do the needed research, ask the right questions, think and ponder, to answer the email you received. You can even finish more urgent and more important tasks first, if you're so bold (look at you!).

The corresponding weakness? Same thing. It is not real-time, so very often you send an email like a black hole probe — once it crosses the event horizon, it is gone. No answer, no nothing. You assume the recipient is either on a month long survival holiday to the Antarctica, or dead, or just ignores you. And you're not sure which is worse.

Silence is golden. Sometimes.
(photo by banlon1964)

In so many cases I asked the person quite some time after sending them a message, and they say that, yes, they saw it, and they either will get back to me, or (I love this part) “agree”.

Thus, my kind request to the world of email users, and a guideline I try to follow myself as much as I can. Email is an offline communication method, so, please, don't rush answering it. Take your time to do it right. Yet, if you think it will take you a while — send back a very brief acknowledgment note (you can even make it nice, if you're inclined), to say, you know, “Thanks for contacting me, I need to check some things before getting back to you soonish”. Or whatever corresponds your situation, play by the tune.

It does several things:

  • Shows that you're a nice person (which I am sure you are).
  • Puts the sender's mind at peace — “they are looking at it, good, the ball is in their court now”.
  • Buys you time to do what you need.

For some reason this “skill”, as obvious as it sounds, is almost entirely missing in the culture where I come from, so people (me included) need to be taught and reminded about it.

Cap'n Obvious over!

* — there are other features too, for which we love (or hate) email. It is loggable and searchable, it can hide your real emotions and your immediate reactions (meaning that sometimes the reader will imagine his own emotions on top of your text), etc. These can be and will be pros or cons too, so be careful and conscious.


  1. All I can see last half a year at work, this is not a national/cultural thing.

    1. “They” don't answer either?

      Not my experience of working with western companies, though I usually interact with owners / managers, so perhaps this means that it is a habit of “successful” people only?

      Even bigger reason to obtain this skill :)