What is the optimal speed of email response?

by on July 5, 2017 at 12:41 am in Philosophy, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

A while ago I tweeted something like “If you use 2x on your podcasts, should you also aspire to speak twice as fast to others?”, or something like that.  In turn I started thinking about the optimal speed of written responses.

Sometimes you won’t email back until you have something quite good to say, and discourse may be inefficiently slow.  You are waiting, not only because you might be busy, but also to protect your reputation. It would be socially preferable to just “get the response over with,” even if you seem a little duncey every now and then.  In fact you are a little duncey.

Alternatively, you may drum up an obviously perfunctory response, so that no one judges your intelligence by it.  In equilibrium, some people will overinvest in being brusque over email for this reason.

If one has been smart or clever, it raises the bar for future interactions, raises expectations, and so slows down discourse.  So often (too often?) we judge others by the trend.  In that case, cleverness should ascend with time, at least in the initial stages of relationships.  If that is the case, do not raise initial expectations so high, though neither can you sound too stupid at first.  Perhaps the same is true for blogs and blog posts.

Or say you wish to flatter the sender of the email.  What is the appropriate response pace toward that end?  Not one second later, but not three years later either.

The now-defunct gmail chat eased some of these problems by lowering expectations for quality of response, by making “right away” the default pace.  I suspect one does gmail chat, or whatever is replacing it now, mainly with people where “expectations of quality” already are fairly well set.

If you have a really clever email response, you might wish to send it right away, even if you could come up with a slightly better version after a day of thought.  The immediate send will produce a more favorable impression.

People who are quick thinkers should answer their email right away.  Some of this may be a general attachment to a propensity for “quick response.”  But they will seem smarter this way too, albeit less smart once their recipients figure out this logic.

1 Christian Hansen July 5, 2017 at 1:02 am

New Book: “An Economist Gets Mail”. No wonder they call it the dismal science.

2 Kevin Burke July 5, 2017 at 1:07 am

FWIW, some venture capitalists are known for their very fast response rates to any email and expect the same of founders they invest in.

3 MMK July 5, 2017 at 8:35 am

I read somewhere a few years ago that Jeff Bezos said he’ll either respond to an e-mail right away or never.

4 Hazel Meade July 5, 2017 at 10:05 am

Considering the amount of email Jeff Bezos probably gets that’s likely imposed by necessity. You physically can’t read it all so you just skim subject lines and respond immediately to the things that strike you as being of critical important. By the time you get back to your desk later, you’ve got another 500 emails to check, so there’s no way you’re going back and responding to any old ones. Anyone who REALLY needs you attention will send another email, this time in all caps and with the important flag turned on.

5 Jeff R July 5, 2017 at 10:39 am

He probably has someone to read and screen his emails. I don’t think this is uncommon for executives these days.

6 Hazel Meade July 5, 2017 at 11:44 am

True. Although there’s definitely a level of middle management where you have too many emails too read and no assistant to screen them. Plus, you really have to have a highly competent assistant to make sure you don’t miss anything actually important. It probably depends on individual style too – a more hands-on executive will likely be screening less.
And if you’re Hillary Clinton, you don’t even us the company email account, you just have your secretary forward the important ones to your private server.

7 Jeff R July 5, 2017 at 12:31 pm

Prior,

I pity you.

8 Hazel Meade July 5, 2017 at 12:46 pm

I’m pretty sure Colin Powell didn’t expect her to *exclusively* used ONLY her private server for all of her state department business, including classified communications.

Also, think of the turnaround time. You have to wait for Huma to read all you email and decide which ones are worth forwarding in order to find out that Ambassador Stevens is begging for more security, assuming that Human Abedin thinks that is a fact worth of your notice.

9 GoneWithTheWind July 5, 2017 at 10:31 am

I have noticed that podcasts and Youtube videos tend to be real time wasters because the tendency when speaking in front of a microphone or camera is to “act” rather than communicate. With a written document you can skim and/or read parts intently as necessary. But with voice or video you are at the mercy of the presenter who seems to feel that they are on the stage and that it is all about them and not about the message.

10 Casablanca July 5, 2017 at 11:35 am

And here, Gallantry took its last breath.

11 Enrique July 5, 2017 at 1:32 am

A related question: do response times lead to an arms race of shorter and shorter response times? Can’t people coordinate on a standard response time, say, one business day?

12 Andrei July 5, 2017 at 2:08 am

For me, it’s easy: I answer every email at most 24 hours after receiving it (because it makes sense that I would read my inbox at least once a day and therefore waiting more than that would mean I’m ignoring the person).

13 ChrisA July 5, 2017 at 2:49 am

I am the same, if I read an email I try to answer it at the same time with my initial thoughts, If I leave it chances are it will get forgotten. But I think this is my personality type rather than a general recommendation for everyone. A lot of people prefer to be careful in their response and don’t want to provide answers without checking every last detail. Sometimes that is appropriate.

14 carlospln July 5, 2017 at 2:46 am

WTF?

Now you’re the Emily Post of GMU?

You need a drink.

15 Mark July 5, 2017 at 3:09 am

Gmail Chat isn’t really defunct. It’s now part of Google Hangouts, which you can have displayed right down the left-hand side of your Gmail web page.

16 pat July 5, 2017 at 4:36 am

i took eight hundred and nine seconds to respond at the optimal speed

17 Art Thompson July 5, 2017 at 7:45 am

It is essentially defunct though, for some reason. I really like it, but nobody seems to use it. My daughter uses it with me, but no one else, she reports. The most primitive-text messaging, is preferred. Presumably to permanently lower the expectations on the quality.
Of course this also means that you have to know the phone number, so other social implications exist.

18 rayward July 5, 2017 at 7:01 am

Cowen is a self-described speed reader. His explanation is that he has read so much on so many subjects that few books, articles, essays, etc. he reads today have any new information, which he confirms by scanning the pages for anything that might jump out as new. Watching interviews of Cowen about his new book revealed that he is also a speed talker. By that I mean he responds to questions almost before the questioner can complete the question. It’s as though Cowen has already thought about the question and has a response without having to gather his thoughts first. With his preference for speed (speed reading, speed talking, speed emails), one might wonder if Cowen prefers speed eating (eating being one of Cowen’s favorite pastimes). Indeed, in what other activities does Cowen prefer speed?

19 Borjigid July 5, 2017 at 11:37 am

Perhaps he speed reads, etc in order to free up time to eat slowly?

20 A clockwork orange July 5, 2017 at 5:37 pm

It is true that Emerson marveled dexterity. The ability to build based on a foundation.

But Thoreau’s hero was John Locke. Locke postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Contrary to Cartesian philosophy based on pre-existing concepts, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perception.

This is decidedly a view that contradicts a Jungian view of a collective unconscious. But Lock also developed a labour theory of property, namely that ownership of property is created by the application of labour. So maybe Tyler’s foundation is solid.

I, much like Aristotle and Democritus and Ptolemy and Thomas Jefferson believe the mind and body are one object contained by a single substrate, and thus we do have pre existing conditions based on a collective unconscious, and only our labor and the privacy granted by the constitution can provide a solid foundation.

21 TerriW July 5, 2017 at 7:21 am

Response time depends on whether I’m on a phone or computer (alas, usually have phone) due to typing constraints. If it only requires short reply, immediate. If longer, I wait until a computer keyboard is around.

22 Bruce Cleaver July 5, 2017 at 7:58 am

I would have written a shorter email, but I didn’t have the time.

23 Joel Miller July 5, 2017 at 8:03 am

You still use email? 🙂

24 RM July 5, 2017 at 8:29 am

I started communicating with a senior colleague over email and I started each email with “Dear”. I regret it because now it is really awkward to stop. How can o move to “Hi”???

25 Thiago Ribeiro July 5, 2017 at 9:00 am

You first proceed to “esteemed”. Our you start all your emails dor a while saying how hard pressed for time you are nowadays and your ortography and manners may even suffer a little. A Martian anthropologist would ask you if it is really an important matter and, if it is, why can’t you address the issue directly.

26 A blanco obrigado #ibaperara parque July 5, 2017 at 12:25 pm

In his galligaskins, his pantaloons, his trousers always rolled up, drinking his Chartreuse sans milk, warm in his piedmont wool, elephantine slippers in his boredom, yes nothing ever happens, nothing ever happens, the ennui, the rotgut, the doldrums, the mediocrity of his ermine beard. The mime hath patience broth.

27 tjamesjones July 5, 2017 at 12:17 pm

respond quickly to one of his emails with a very short (but purposeful) answer. and thus break the spell.

28 RM July 5, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Thanks — brilliant suggestion!

29 Nick_L July 5, 2017 at 3:08 pm

Have you read Catch 22? There’s scene in it with a dead man’s belongings in a tent, that may resonate for you

30 Dan in Philly July 5, 2017 at 9:26 am

For my profession, I have to send emails which must prompt others to action, which is not always as easy as you might think as I never have any authority over the receiver and can’t simply tell them what to do. Since my job is deadline driven if I need action from others and they don’t respond in a timely manner it will affect my own ability to complete my work. Furthermore I always have to assume any email I send could be forwarded to others to invite action from them, others who might not know me or have any incentive to act on my behalf.

Therefore I always spend a lot of my time composing emails, framing them generally as arguments intended to persuade the reader to the desired action I want them to take. While this results in fewer emails than sometimes I would prefer, the ones I send out are effective, which is all I really need.

31 Peter Ozug July 5, 2017 at 9:28 am

On the topic of response times: I just wait long enough to craft the perfect response that I feel so guilty about not responding sooner that I end the relationship.

On the topic of podcast speed: Overcast has bumped up the max speed on podcasts to 3x. Include the shortened dead space and it can hit about 4.5x. I can listen at that pace to most podcasts. On the other hand, if I talk at anything above about .8x of what feels natural, people complain about my mumbling.

32 Hazel Meade July 5, 2017 at 10:02 am

Gmail chat still exists. It’s called “Hangouts”.

33 Bill July 5, 2017 at 10:04 am

Just remember, the speed with which you respond is a metric as is the non-response. Just as is the frequency of communication, and to who you forward the email to for additional information.

I remember reading a paper on how corporations examine such email data to determine hierarchy, informal networks, and sources of embedded information within the organization.

Here’s how its used: Say I send an executive a factual question and he forwards it to someone else to answer the question. Now I know who has information within the organization. So, when it comes time to fire people after an acquisition, I know who has the information and who should not be fired.

Length of response and detail of response is a metric also, so I’m stopping now. (Some people respond with detailed information, and others respond with a cursory “thanks for the info”, both of which responses tell you something.) Thanks for the info.

34 Hadur July 5, 2017 at 10:54 am

I literally used gmail chat this morning.

35 BandraIsBetter July 5, 2017 at 12:43 pm

Email response decisions would also be shaped by whether or not the subject works in the same office as his/her correspondent and whether they are just the subject’s boss or peer, or someone higher up in the org. chart.

36 Nick_L July 5, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Now, remind us, who was it who once said that we should be suspicious of simple stories? Or was that simple emails?

37 Pearl Y July 5, 2017 at 6:24 pm

Nice post. This made me feel better about the fact that no one writes back to my emails, apparently they’re just intimidated by my cleverness.

38 Kevin Postlewaite July 5, 2017 at 6:59 pm

Another strategy is simply to never answer email. As time goes on, there’s the added advantage of less incoming email to read.

39 jeffn July 6, 2017 at 3:40 am

I’m curious about peoples’ email habits and in social settings I often ask others about their email behavior.

Many have little awareness of how many minutes per day they allocate to email; they have to think about the question, and it often takes them some time to come up with an estimate, which most seem to underestimate. I think there’s large variation between individuals on say a daily average minutes spent dealing with emails, with some being 5 minutes, and some being 400 minutes. Some people I ask check their email once per day, or even less, and some say they check it every 5 minutes. Some have email installed on their phone, and some do not so that it doesn’t interrupt them.

When it comes to writing emails, some seem to spend 25-30 minutes writing an email. Some spend 25-30 seconds.

I think email behavior is something we know very little about. Obvious correlates seem to be occupation, gender birth year, gender, income, tenure, etc.

40 Some Other Guy July 6, 2017 at 7:50 am

A lot of companies have started using Slack for internal communications. It’s free, including for up to pretty big teams, but companies/teams/groups that adopt it a lot of times end up paying to use it so they can set retention/archiving policies and whatnot. It’s a lot more immediate than email.

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