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 non-constructive 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 expectationsrequest 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Writing and Managing Email:
- Avoid Typing Under the Influence
- 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?
- Email Happens
- Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its
limitations? How can we use email safely?
- Email Antics: II
- Nearly everyone complains that email is a time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own
actions. Here's Part II of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
- Email Antics: III
- 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.
- Four Overlooked Email Risks: I
- Working together to resolve issues or make decisions in email is fraught with risk. Most discussions
of these risks emphasize using etiquette to manage emotional content. But email has other limitations,
less-often discussed, that make managing email exchanges very difficult.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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