Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Basic Email Etiquette: Why Wait To Return Email?

When we use email, there are certain rules of etiquette that some abide by, but that other normally polite people seem to ignore completely. During the 28 or so years I've been emailing, it's changed a lot. Back then, I was emailing back to some business partners and learning how to make html commands. It was all so primitive in retrospect that I was happy to get a reply. At that time, just getting a point across was important, not grammar or command of the language, as most emailers then weren't that good at either, or even the English language at all, if they were foreign speakers.

Fast forward twenty years, and I am surprised how long it took for email to really take off, and I'm so glad it has. But here's the thing, when I try to communicate by email, some people take it casually. Email is not supposed to be taken casually. It's less intrusive than a telephone call. No one needs to drop anything to answer. But it's a lot quicker, and sometimes more reliable, than a posted letter.

As a note, it shouldn't usually require much time to answer. Sometimes, answering by email is far more efficient than calling by phone, if the email address is there, if the person at the other end is difficult to reach, and if the sender doesn't have much time or desire to talk. It's the modern-day equivalent of the hand-delivered note, and a friend should be replied to at the earliest convenience.

If an answer is desired quite promptly, and the other person seems to take forever to answer without a good reason, then emailing is not the best form of communication. Has the emailed forgotten or doesn't she want to reply? A few years ago there was a cocktail party to plan with some other mothers at school. Turns out the event was primarily being planned by two of us, and we decided to correspond by email. Here's how it went: I emailed, and then a few days or a week later would get a reply. I'd immediately reply and wait another week. What took six weeks could have been done more quickly if only the other mother had concentrated and answered my emails promptly, maybe in one day. For some reason, she wouldn't call me. Never again with her, I vowed, would I plan an event.


Good etiquette is one of my interests. I've read nearly all the American books on etiquette and English ones like Debrett's. Debrett's has a wonderful online site here. As a teenager, I was happy to pore over Letitia Baldrige's book for hours and hours, as it seemed to answer so many burning questions I had. It was an early "guilty pleasure" and since it wasn't an assigned book from school, covered new ground. It's obviously never too late to learn more, as currently, I'm reading Margaret Sangster's classic 1904 book on etiquette, called "Good Manners For All Occasions" available at Amazon and antiquarian dealers.


Have you ever had unexpected delays with email? Please let me know how it turned out.

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