Recently I read, I think it was in the NYT, an article (opinion piece maybe?) about emails response; more accurately, the writer was whining about people not answering diligently their emails. My first thought was “fuck that!” – followed by a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of smashing heads with a war hammer. Then, since I am a civilised person, most of the time, the virtual abuse and violence started catalysing into semi-articulate thoughts.
Emails, like phone calls, are not a right. Let me rephrase that: You have a right to using emails and phones. But who on God’s Green Earth™ gave you the right to demand that I answer? I bought a mobile phone for my convenience; likewise, I have opened a number of email addresses (13 at last count) to fit certain needs. And my successive various employers gave me email addresses too, during my employment with each of them, to facilitate communication with colleagues, clients and providers. Notice the word “facilitate“. I know that one of them was expecting me to answer my professional email address and phone 24/7. And who was incensed I didn’t have a voicemail. But there’s a reason this particular employer has a yearly 500,000-euro budget for lawyer fees – he has a lawyer specialised in labour disputes on retainer… But I digress: this company is considered to be a slave shop, and one should expect more from ordinary people, right?
I am a Crackberry addict. I have been using a Blackberry phone for years now, for precisely the convenience of having all communication modes integrated into one piece of hardware. SMS – which I use as little as possible, since they’re not free, and there are today free alternatives to SMS – voice, emails, messenger applications (Blackberry’s own BBM, MSN Messenger, GTalk, etc), Twitter’s Direct Messages, and the list could go on (although that’s about it for me, as I don’t use Facebook). My phone doesn’t ring. Or vibrate. My current Blackberry, a Bold 2 aka Onyx, hasn’t made a sound in its entire career with me. And never will. It displays cute little icons when I get messages, and it displays an incoming call screen if and when. Which I can dismiss if I press “Ignore”. I miss (by accident that is) very few calls, as, being a Crackberry addict, my phone spends a lot of time out of its holster, in my hands. When a phone call comes in, here are the most probable situations:
1) I’m not watching my phone, because I am doing something else;
2) I saw the incoming call, but I am otherwise engaged and can’t drop it (need I mention nature calls?);
3) I saw the incoming call, but I am in a place so loud that it will make communication frustrating at best, impossible in many cases;
4) I saw the incoming call, and it’s either a number I don’t know, someone I have no intention to talk to, or an “Unknown Number”;
5) I saw the incoming call, and it’s someone who’s going to demand 100% of my brain power for a non-trivial amount of time;
6) I saw the incoming call, and I am willing to take the call.
Now, what happens in cases 1 to 5, when I decline to answer? An intelligent person, at least one who has a non-devious intent (as opposed to marketers, banks, assholes who want something from me that I am unwilling to give, etc), will reach out to me in other ways (since voicemail is not an option: more about that later), stating their business and asking me to get back to them. Semi-intelligent people, rude assholes with a (perceived) legitimate reason, and otherwise not very well equipped people will just send an SMS demanding I call back. Those are aplenty, and the main reason I don’t have a voicemail anymore: they couldn’t leave a 30-second articulate message to save their life. It’s either a vocal twin of the SMS they send: 5 words that don’t explain anything; or a long rambling message that never gets to the point and bores me into a deep slumber.
Which of course brings us to the subject of text messages, under all their forms. I won’t go into email etiquette with regards to composing a message, the size of attachments (especially files that I didn’t ask for), who to send it to (email@example.com shouldn’t be a valid email address…), fancy colours and images and HTML crapola that I won’t see anyway since my phone doesn’t display them, and my main email programme is set to display plain text only. There’s plenty about that already.
No. I’m more interested into what happens after you’ve sent me a text message. Which is probably nothing. Assume it will be nada. First things first: there won’t be an acknowledgment if I can help it. No read-receipt for emails. Never ever. BBM and other apps might display, alas, a “message read” icon. Which I’ve learned to work around. Bottom line: Points 1 to 6 above apply to messages the same way. The fact that you are able to instantly reach out to me doesn’t mean I am willing to and/or capable of dealing with it instantly. Do not assume that because you clicked “send” you have now the right to demand a slice of my brain.
There’s a non-trivial probability that the email you just sent is actually a waste of my time – and yours, really. Just because you can send an instantaneous message to someone, me, doesn’t mean it’s actually a proof that you are not a waste of water and electrical impulses; or that it’s a message that actually concerns me. I get heaps of messages, both corporate and personal, that just don’t concern or interest me. The corporate CC: group-hug virus has less chance to be eradicated than HIV. As for the friendly joke/chain-letter email-to-all-friends disease, it’s easier dealt with, but still a pain in multiple places. I don’t like to set friends as spammers, but my sanity requires it sometimes.
Then, admitting that I may, admittedly, be the rightful recipient of a moderately articulate message, it doesn’t mean I have to respond. Definitely not immediately anyway. Always assume I have received the message. If I didn’t, you will probably get an automated notification. And even if you didn’t get one, and the message was lost, it’s not the end of the world. If I really needed this message, I will ask for it, eventually. If you needed input from me, and I don’t mean “Thanks, got it!” but real, value-adding input, first consider whether you have a right to expect a response from me – are you my boss? – and consider the time-frame. I might just be busy working on it, and instead of getting an instant response full of nothing, you’ll get a valuable answer within the time-frame. Likewise, be honest, ask yourself whether your email was an imposition – and that I might have put it on the back-burner. Or maybe I used the delete key.
Seriously. I used the delete key.