Responding Instantly: The New Netiquette

Posted on September 30, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized |

I’m still trying to figure out the new “netiquette” when communicating with people.  Back in my June blog, I vented my frustration about how many communication channels we now have and how difficult it was to know which one to choose when you want to reach someone.  This blog is about the flip side of that problem: the response.  How fast do you have to respond to someone?  What are reasonable expectations for replying to a text, email or phone call?  I’m going to focus on business communications in this blog, but personal communications probably have similar expectations.

Here’s the situation:  You send someone an email with a request.  How fast do they have to respond before you wonder if they are ignoring you or if the technology failed to put the email message in their inbox?  10 minutes? 1 hour? 1 day? 1 week?  Multiply that by the number of emails people get every day and you can see the quandary.   We can’t just drop everything to respond instantly to emails (although I admit, some days that seems to be the only thing I get done).  On the other hand, we don’t want to be rude and not respond in a timely manner. What is the new etiquette?

I did some research on this topic seeking advice and best practices.  There are many websites on this topic.  Here’s a few of the insights and recommendations I found:

First, the Bank of America’s Small Business site offers some advice to business owners.

How long does it take you to respond to an email? In the world of the internet waiting more then 24 hours is considered a long time! Recent studies have shown that you can get an indication about a person based on this issue of responding to emails. If it takes someone a long time to respond and it happens over and over again – then you know that this person simply doesn’t care about your email. Stay away from them and focus on building your business with serious people.

Miss Manners also had something to say about this:

Gentle Reader: 
As we are all slowly discovering, the problem with email, as well as its great advantage, is that it is efficient. So everyone uses it to convey every little passing observation to everyone else.

That is all very well for those who want to keep expressing themselves, but the result to the recipient, even aside from the spam and junk, is as if everyone one knows is talking all at once. Of course one should sort email out in terms of what needs attention when, but that is no sooner done than another load of messages arrives.

As you have noticed, some people just give up. So yes, Miss Manners is afraid that when you need an immediate reply, you will have to hope that they have not turned off their telephones and deserted their offices to work at home.

Virginia Shea has been crowned the “Miss Manners of the Net” in part because of her book, Netiquette, which outlines the do’s and don’ts of online communication.  Here’s her advice:

Q. My organization just installed an email system, and everyone is starting to use it. How often do I need to check my mail?

Preferably three or four times a day, but at least twice a day. You should always check your mail in the morning when you come in to the office and in mid-afternoon, or an hour or two before you leave. That way, you pick up messages that were sent while you were out of the office (late-evening messages if you’re a morning person, early-morning messages if you’re not) and act on them immediately. Your mid-afternoon check allows you to deal with the day’s business promptly. A midday check and a final check before you leave for the day are always a good idea, as well.

If you’re really too busy to check your mail that often, or if you’re going to be out for more than a day, consider deputizing someone to check and respond for you.

I also found a website on business etiquette written by Judith Kallos, an email etiquette expert who has written several books on this subject and has appeared on TV and radio shows to talk about business email etiquette.  Here’s a version of what she recommends:

What is the rule for how fast you should be responding to e-mails?

The short answer: As soon as you can.

The long answer: It is obvious that some e-mails will be more important to you than others. It also is clear that we only have so much time in a day and there will be days where you will be unable to reply to any e-mails at all. So, you do the best you can to reply to everyone as soon as you can.

Onliners look at e-mail as an instantaneous medium. They know that their e-mail is in your inbox waiting to be downloaded or ready for you to read usually within minutes to hours of clicking Send.

By not making the Sender aware you are away with a courteous away message, the Sender will assume their e-mail is received and if not responded to promptly, in your view, not a priority. If you are so busy that you cannot respond at all (you’re there but not “away” to require an away message be in place), you are in fact deciding to ignore the Sender — even if for the time being — and that’s exactly what they will assume. You’ve made a decision that their e-mail is not important to you or you would have responded.

There really is no gray area here. Perception is alive and well in regard to how quickly you respond to those who take the time to e-mail you. That is why it is so important to have a informative away message in place if you are not available at all. Senders will then understand if they don’t receive a prompt reply from you.  If you are simply swamped or have other responsibilities that keep you from responding in detail, a short message stating your situation and that you will respond in detail as soon as you can is highly recommended.

Remember, e-mail isn’t just about you, how busy you are or what you feel is important to you at that point in time. There is another human being involved (the Sender) on the other side of your screen who e-mailed you for a reason and is expecting your prompt response.

Finally, not all emails need a reply.  Here’s a short list from Scott Young, author of The LIttle Book of Productivity.  He wrote a blog, published at at PickTheBrain.com about email habits that make people hate you.  In it he came up with a list to help make the decision about when a reply is needed:

  • Introductions – reply needed
  • Requests – reply needed
  • Thanks/Signing Off – no reply needed
  • Mass Info Mailings – no reply needed
  • Mass Request Mailings – reply needed
  • Follow-up Questions – reply needed

So what can we take away from this research?  For emails, a response is expected fairly quickly, even if only to say that the recipient is busy and can’t give a long reply right now.  If you get an email, you need to reply promptly.  If you send an email, you can reasonably “expect” a reply promptly.

Realistically, however, we need new netiquette with the exploding number of electronic channels today.  Here’s my suggestion on the urgency communicated by each medium:

  • Text- very urgent, quick reply expected
  • Email- important, reply expected within reasonable timeframe (day or two)
  • Facebook message- read it next time you are on Facebook, and reply in the same medium (within a few days)
  • Linked In message- See Facebook message.  The expectations are the same.
  • Phone Call- important, and expect real-time connection.  If voice-mail is left, expectations are that a return call, email or text will be forthcoming (within a few hours)
  • Paper mail (snail mail)-  when it’s not junk mail, a physical letter implies a legal matter is at hand, a bill needs to be paid, an invitation has been extended or simply a formal connection is in the works. The communication is not urgent, and a reply is requested, but expectations are dependent on what the letter says.Urgent matters that come along with expectations of instant response aren’t sent by mail; they are emailed.
In closing, we must remember that how (and when) we say something can be just as important as what we say.  To quote Dale Carnegie, educator and communications guru,
“There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.” – Dale Carnegie (1888-1955)
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