Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 24;   June 10, 2020: They Don't Reply to My Email

They Don't Reply to My Email


Ever have the experience of sending an email message to someone, asking for information or approval or whatever, and then waiting for a response that comes only too late? Maybe your correspondent is an evil loser, but maybe not. Maybe the problem is in your message.
Kitty Genovese, in a mug shot created by the Queens, New York, police department after her arrest on a bookmaking charge in 1961

Kitty Genovese, in a mug shot created by the Queens, New York, police department after her arrest on a bookmaking charge in 1961. Ms. Genovese was murdered in the early hours of March 13, 1964, on her way home after work as a bartender. The New York Times reported, erroneously, that her murder was seen or heard by 38 individuals, none of whom called police to report the attack. The supposed incident became the basis for sociological research regarding the bystander effect. Although the bystander effect is real, and although the murder did occur, the reports of bystanders failing to report the attack on Ms. Genovese were false. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

When we request information or action from others using email to convey the request, we are too often disappointed by the length of time required to receive a response, if in fact we do receive a response. Most people tend to lay the responsibility for this disappointing performance at the feet of the recipient of the request, and sometimes that is justified. But I believe that some of the responsibility belongs to the requestor. There are phrases and patterns we use that enable recipients to make choices that are inconsistent with our expectations.

In this post I review some of those nonconstructive patterns, and suggest alternatives that might improve communication between sender and recipient. In what follows I'll use the name Sam for the Sender, and Rocky for the Recipient. And when I refer to Sam (or Rocky) I'm referring only to some senders (or some recipients). Here are some phrases or patterns that I believe do depress the probability of satisfactory results.

Let me know if "X"
This construction seems like a straightforward There are phrases and patterns we
use in email that enable recipients
to make choices that are
inconsistent with our expectations
request to reply about something affected by the status of X. Sam expects that if X has happened, Rocky will respond about the situation in that case, and if X hasn't happened, Rocky will respond about that case.
But Sam's expectations might not be consistent with Rocky's interpretation of Sam's request. Rocky might interpret the request as, "If X then tell Sam X happened. Otherwise there is no need to do anything." And so, if X doesn't happen, Rocky doesn't reply, and Sam sits waiting for a reply that never comes.
The fix for this is simple. Sam could instead send the message, "Let me know what's happening whether X or not X."
Absence of "please"
The "tone of voice" in senders' heads as they compose their messages isn't always the same as the "tone of voice" in recipients' heads as they read those same messages. Some recipients experience messages as rude even though they weren't meant to be rude at all. When this happens, some recipients decide to intentionally delay their responses.
Adding a please to a request reduces (but doesn't eliminate) the incidence of unintended rudeness.
Indirect questions
A direct question in an email message is of the form, "When did the requisition go out?" An indirect question is a statement about a direct question, as in, "I'm curious about when the requisition went out." When Sam includes an indirect question in the message, Rocky might not feel compelled to respond to it.
If you have a question, ask it directly.
"Do you agree?" and other yes-or-no questions
When Sam's message contains a yes-or-no question, Rocky is more likely to answer yes or no or something equally terse, even when Sam actually wants a more informative reply. For example, Sam might ask, "Has the requisition gone out yet?" What Sam really wants to know is more like, "When (date/time) did the requisition go out?"
There are people who will supply terse responses to whatever questions you ask, but you're more likely to get the information you actually want if you actually ask for it.
Omitting the deadline
If Sam needs a response by the close of business today, but doesn't include that important fact in the message to Rocky, then Rocky is free to delay responding until tomorrow (or beyond).
By including the preferred response timeframe in email requests, Sam provides the guidance Rocky needs for setting response priorities.
Too many addressees
The chance of receiving a helpful response to an email request can be affected by the number of addressees who receive the message. Research by Barron and Yechiam has shown that compared to responses to messages with multiple addressees, responses to messages addressed to a single recipient are more numerous, more helpful, and lengthier. [Barron 2002]
This phenomenon is believed to be related to the bystander effect, which causes us to be less likely to lend assistance when others are present who could also lend assistance. [Fischer 2011] Also related is extensive work on diffusion of responsibility, though the research on that phenomenon does emphasize emergencies. [Darely 1968]
The addressee was in the CC field
If Sam sends a request to multiple people, the addressees in the CC field are less likely to respond to Sam's request than others are.
To some people, "CC" is equivalent to "FYI" (For Your Information — no action required). Take care, because addresses sometimes appear in the CC field even when the sender didn't make a conscious choice to put them there. For example, suppose that Sam is replying to a message that was sent to multiple recipients. If Sam issues a "Reply All" command, most email clients would insert in the CC field the addresses of all recipients other than the sender of the original message and possibly Sam. To reply to a message sent to multiple recipients, with only selected recipients in the CC field, the sender must manually move the other CCd addressees to the To field.
But a personal message to each individual is more effective. See "Too many addressees" above.

There are some more fundamental reasons why people might not respond to email requests. Many messages are too long, too ambiguous, and contain too many requests. Keep it simple, make it clear, and focus on what's most important. Go to top Top  Next issue: An Introduction to Workplace Ostracism  Next Issue

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Where There's Smoke There's EmailAnd if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Barron 2002]
Greg Barron and Eldad Yechiam. "Private e-mail requests and the diffusion of responsibility," Computers in Human Behavior 18 (2002), 507-520. Available here. Back
[Fischer 2011]
Peter Fischer, Joachim I. Krueger, Tobias Greitemeyer, Claudia Vogrincic, Andreas Kastenmüller, Dieter Frey, Moritz Heene, Magdalena Wicher, and Martina Kainbacher. "The bystander-effect: a meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies," Psychological Bulletin 137:4 (2011), 517-537. Available here. Back
[Darely 1968]
John M. Darley and Bibb Latané. "Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8:4 (1968), 377-383. Available here. Back

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Related articles

More articles on Writing and Managing Email:

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When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. Accidental offense is inevitable, and email is especially likely to produce examples of this problem. What can we do as members of electronic communities when trouble erupts?
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Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?
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Nearly everyone complains that email is a time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own actions. Here's Part III of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
A spiral notebook, a pencil, and a mobile deviceNotes to Self
Many of us jot important reminders to ourselves on sticky notes, used envelopes, scraps of paper, and whatnot. Often we misplace these notes, or later find them too late to serve their purposes. Here's a low-tech alternative that works better for some.
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Communications about important matters must provide both the facts of a situation and the significance of those facts. The facts often receive adequate attention, but at times the significance of the facts is worthy of more attention than the facts.

See also Writing and Managing Email and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

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