Why you should reply to emails

I’ve been meaning to write this post for years. The thing that’s stopped me is that whenever I’ve sat down to write it, I’ve been concerned that one or more people will think that I’m writing it about them, and that I’m being passive/aggressive. Not at all. I’m writing this in case you’re someone who thinks that by not replying to an email, you’re sending a specific message. PSA: you’re not.

Excuses, excuses...

Email is a strange thing. It’s a completely federated system, one that doesn’t rely on a single provider, is free, and pretty much everyone understands how to use. It’s reliable, and the default communication medium in the world of business. And rightly so.

The problem with email is that no-one ever gets taught how to use it properly.

There’s lots of stuff I could go into here — for instance, why you should move to BCC someone who’s just introduced you to another person via email, or why you shouldn’t use your inbox as a to-do list. Instead, I just want to focus on one seemingly small thing: why you should reply to every email you get from a human being.

When you fail to reply to an email the sender has no idea what that means.

Just think of all of the things that your non-reply could signal:

  • I haven’t received it.
  • I haven’t read it yet.
  • I skimmed it and am planning to come back to it.
  • I read it but I didn’t think it was important.
  • I read it but don’t think you are important.
  • I read it but didn’t understand it.

Non-replies lead to speculation on the part of the sender. What does this mean? Am I not important to the recipient? Are they just rude? Of course, we all think of the worst-case scenario, which can actually damange relationships.

You should reply to an email, even if it’s just to say you’ve received it.

Lots of email programs have ‘canned responses’ built-in. GMail certainly does. Even if your email program doesn’t have this functionality, you could have a text file to copy/paste from, or use a shortcut app like TextExpander to help you.

Aim to reply to senders within 24 hours.

For me, unless there are extenuating circumstances, it’s important to reply to an email within one working day. Of course, this relies on other things like the judicious use of out-of-office autoreplies when you’re on holiday/ill/unavailable, as well as email reduction strategies like having other channels of communication.

Replying promptly to emails sustains relationships.

Manage expectations. Allow people to deal with you in the way that is going to be most beneficial to both parties. Be reliable. Over-communicate. Ask them to nudge you. Remove unproductive ambiguity. Use more smilies than you think you need.

In other words, email as if your career depended on it (because it does).

Update: thanks to Bryan Mathers for the great image! (CC BY-ND)