Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Email etiquette: On responding to emails and meeting requests

This article was first published in DNA online on Friday 31 January 2014.

When I moved back to India about four years ago, I often got worked up about the fact that not many people responded to an email or a meeting request appropriately. In Australia, where I lived and worked for much of my professional life, responses to email meeting requests were almost always immediate. It might be just a “Yep, you’re on, mate”, or even a “You’ve got to be kidding. No way I’m going to make it to a 7am meeting. Get stuffed”
But I would get a response. 
I wasn’t quite used to the silence and darkness in email communication I observed on a regular basis in India. I wasn’t quite used to following up an email communiqué with at least two or three more emails, in which the energy in the subject being discussed or the urgency of the meeting request progressively increased with every email.
I would get some responses, of course, which were lukewarm, at best. Some of the typical ones were “Aah yes. That time should be ok” or “Yes ok. That time could be ok”. I was never sure what these actually meant. Did the inclusion of the non-committal “would” or “could” mean the meeting was on, or not?
It took me a while to figure out that the presence of would/should/could in response to a meeting request often meant that the person was keeping his/her options open, either for a potential future cancellation, or on the possibility that they might secure better meeting prospects and bail out on me. This made life quite complex for a neurotically fixated, madly organised and fastidiously structured person like me. 
Of course, this was more my problem than theirs. But that is also a significant problem and a striking dysfunctionality in the business (and in the non-professional) landscape here in India – far too many people worry only about their own issues and problems, and seldom put themselves in the shoes of the person they have an implicit obligation towards.
Soon, however, I got used to the lack of responses. I had to ensure each meeting request was sent to the recipient at least three or four times – a debilitating and sapping process of deliberate e-harassment that I detested – before I secured a response. I hated being the harasser, but I was left with no choice. Often, this meant meetings were fixed only at the last moment before an inter-city business trip commenced. And this often meant I had to live with concomitant sub-optimal travel logistics. 
The cost of an airline ticket for such a trip, planned and executed at the very last minute, would be much higher than a trip that I had begun planning three weeks earlier. These last minute arrangements and changes meant that I would often crisscross the locations of my meetings in a highly inefficient manner. Essentially, the transaction costs became much higher than they needed to be; sometimes as much as 20% higher. I am reasonably confident that the transaction cost escalation applies to everyone else in industry as well. So imagine the time and cost savings that could accrue if all of us responded with alacrity to emails and meeting requests. 
Of course, all of this applies as much to personal engagements as it does in the professional space. RSVPs on invites, for instance, are often seen as just a bunch of alphabets that very few people seem to care about. We seldom feel the need to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who depend on us.
But now I have become quite used to this e-silence. It still pains me and disgusts me, but I am now more accepting of this as a way of life. I also got used to this new way of harassing people for meetings within about four months of arriving in Mumbai. And then, about a month later, I was floored by a somewhat unique response to a request: “I think that in all probability that date-time is highly likely to be possibly ok!” Now, I can buy one option on a future cancellation, but there are at least four hedges in that particular form of extreme dithering!
This sort of behaviour is not restricted to meeting requests alone. Many emails tend to go into black holes. We don’t see the need to respond to all emails efficiently and systematically, and this can hurt us in the long run. Of course, we are all, no doubt, constantly deluged by an incessant tsunami of emails. However, we do have an obligation to respond to genuine emails or delegate that task to someone else, even if it is just a holding response. If not, perhaps it gives cause to reflect on our roles, our purpose and on whether we should be occupying the positions we do. 
Responding to professional correspondence – and emails are a very important form of professional correspondence today – is a professional obligation for people in any position in any organisation. It is part of professional hygiene and basic business etiquette that everyone should have; be it CEOs, managers, government officers, clerks or security personnel. Often, an email is responded to simply because the recipient has been badgered by the sender. This is just horribly inefficient. And not responding to emails is not a sign that a person is busy or ultra-important, but actually that they are disorganised and unprofessional.
This is particularly so in the world of research and education, which I inhabit. 
In an article in Current Science, Sharma, A., Malhotra, A. and Sharma, P. (Current Science, 2012, Vol 102, pages 9–10) make the case that Indian students seek internship and higher study opportunities overseas because their emails and other correspondence get responded to promptly and professionally. They conclude that this behaviour possibly hampers our collective progress in science. 
In a long letter to Current Science (Current Science, Vol. 102, No. 10, 25 May 2012), Shubha Tole from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), agrees with the points in the aforementioned article and argues that “students who receive replies to their queries feel encouraged about science, even if the reply is not positive.” 
While our primary role as academics might be to do research or to teach – or in the case of a senior manager in a business enterprise, to run the company effectively – our role in today’s complex world is also to protect and enhance the brand of the organisations we work in. Part of that brand comes from how responsive we are to people who reach out to us.
Tole argues that one possible, albeit cynical reason for our reluctance to reply to emails probably stems from a fear of committing to anything in writing. She says, “If one replies to an e-mail, one can be held accountable for what one says – it is better to express misgivings or agreements verbally. So not replying to e-mails becomes but a symptom of a broader problem that makes our system operate in an unprofessional manner.” A simple response to that point is that if the person cannot do whatever the job requires them to do – that is, to be responsive and accountable – they do have a choice: they can vacate the position and hand over the responsibilities to someone who wants (and is able to do) just that.
Yet another behaviour that amuses me is that of executive or personal assistants. If they do not have the authority to organise their boss’ meetings, I think they become nothing more than gatekeepers. Their capabilities and role as a diary manager is somewhat wasted. Often, I get a “let me talk to the boss and get back to you” response to a meeting request that is gated through the EA. As a boss, if your EA does not know your priorities and does not have the delegation to accept meetings for you, I believe you are stuffed even before you start.
If an email is not a spam, we have to realise and accept that we have an obligation to respond to it, and that by not responding to it, (a) we send a direct message to the sender that they are not important to us and we have deliberately chosen to ignore them, or (b) we are utterly disorganised and unprofessional. 
Now that smart phones and ubiquitous connectivity have pervaded all aspects of our professional lives, we make these choices every time we ignore an email or a meeting request. 
In saying that, I do of course, realise that some emails (and meeting requests) will be more important than others. So, while a delayed response is acceptable, ignoring the communiqué is not. Even if it is a ‘holding response’ it is our obligation to do just that: Respond.
-- Mohan (@mohank)

The idea of a 'back home'

This article was first published in DNA online on Thursday 23 January 2014.

It was the end of a long flight back to Mumbai from Melbourne last year. I was tired and itching to get back to the comfort of my own bed after having been on the road for the best part of the preceding month. The stewards were preparing for landing, and one of them who was going around collecting headsets smiled at me and remarked, “Nice to be back home, I’m sure.”
The question set me off-kilter. I didn’t know what or how to reply. I smiled sheepishly and waveringly, as though the steward had just asked me to explain the principles of general relativity.
I lived in Melbourne for 17 years before moving to Mumbai in 2009 for professional reasons. When the steward asked me that question, I wasn’t sure what “back home” meant anymore.
The irony is that in all my years in Melbourne, I would always refer to India as “back home”. I would talk almost longingly about the vibrancy, the anarchy, the energy and the chaos of life “back home”. I would weave in phrases about life “back home” in many normal conversations. So much so, that my Australian colleagues and friends would often ask if I intended to head “back home” to India some day in the future. “Back home” had become an integral part of my normal lexicon.
The clear empirical evidence there pointed to a reduction that, somehow, my memories, my senses and sensory experiences, directly or indirectly, considered that home wasn’t where I currently was. 
And mine is probably not an isolated experience. It is possibly a diasporic phenomenon.
We move our locations (either across countries or within a country) for a variety of reasons of course, not least because of better – or different – career opportunities, better living standards, safety and (in some extreme cases) fear of persecution.
And when we move, along with our skills, capabilities, expertise and aspirations, we also take with us memories: memories of our childhood; of school or college; of cricket matches we may have played or watched; of football teams we may have supported; of our parents and the values they imparted; of arguments we may have had; of friendships, partnerships and relationships; of movies we watched; of pranks we may have pulled. And more. We also carry with us the values that make us who we are. Most of these are imprinted in us through the early stages of life, when we soak up everything that is around us from our parents, relatives, friends and role models.
In a beautifully written article, The West Indian Front Room: Reflections on a Diasporic Phenomenon, Michael McMillan writes, 
“The front room was a contradictory space, where the efficacy of the display was sometimes more important than the authenticity of the objects, such as artificial flowers, plastic pineapple ice buckets, floral patterned carpet and wallpaper that never matched, and pictures of the scantily clad “Tina” next to The Last Supper. The dressing and maintenance of the front room reveals a form of “impression management,” as in the flexible presentation of self that brings up issues of “good grooming” among people of African descent. It was very much my mother’s room, and as a second-generation, black British person from an aspirant working-class family of Vincentian parentage, I have ambivalent memories of it. I must confess that growing up I was embarrassed about the front room’s aesthetics, as it seemed in “bad taste,” or had no taste at all; in other words, it was “kitsch”—a pejorative social code for working-class culture.”
And I could relate to that completely as I set up home in Melbourne. It was as if around me, I had objects that both validated and reinforced my own memories of “back home”. Moreover, I continually saw objects such as these in almost every home I visited, and these provided more reinforcement of these memories and values. It was hard to escape, or perhaps I did not want to escape them. I was comfortable with the notion of “back home”.
There were other significant behaviours and anchors too that played to the collective memory of “back home”. Though I was constantly striving to integrate – socially, culturally and politically – into the nation I had embraced as my current “home”, I was constantly and acutely aware of my origins; not only by my ‘front room’ but also by the clothes I wore, the way I spoke and the values I held.
Meanwhile, value systems were undergoing a quiet metamorphosis in India – if it is even possible to identify, leave alone quantify something as complex as an average set of values that characterise a society or system. But I held on to the values that I knew and cherished.
I would read the Sydney Morning Herald and The Hindu everyday. I attended and organised Indian classical music concerts, ate Indian food, attended Dandiya nights during Navratri, played cards during Diwali and got together with Indian friends regularly. And when we got together, we would speak in Tamil or Hindi or Telugu or Gujarati. I attended (and helped friends organise) Indian weddings and (sadly) cremations just the way these are conducted “back home”. I would regularly call family and friends “back home”. And I would occasionally send remittances “back home” and helped contribute to India being the country which receives most remittances from diaspora. Our homes became, in Michael McMillan’s words, a “museum of archived memories”. The objects in it become metaphors that constantly reminded us of our memories and values.
So, it was somewhat natural that for many like me, India was “back home” for much of the duration of our stay overseas. During holiday trips “back home” from Australia or the US or Great Britain, we may have despaired at (or criticised) the lack of progress or inadequate resources or lack of hygiene or inadequate facilities as we energetically shopped for more objects for our front rooms.
And then there are those, like me, who chose to return to India to work, after having lived and worked overseas for many years. We may have returned for a variety of reasons: professional, personal, or both. The longer we "returnees” lived overseas, the more difficult it is for us to reintegrate into the home of our origin. The readjustment is not only to a different pace of life but also to a community identity that is shaped by values very different to the ones locked away in our collective memories.
My reintegration was certainly very difficult. But, as I write here, my wife and I wanted to undergo the “returnee” experience mainly for ourselves. It was a decision that was self-imposed, selfish and self-focused. We returned because we wanted to, unlike Sumedh Mungee, whose article inspired my blog post linked above.
As a returnee, I needed to quickly re-emerge from the value time-warp I was in and readjust to a society and a culture that had changed quite dramatically. This was exceedingly difficult for me considering I – like many other returnees – had gained and absorbed an Australian identity even without actually realising it.
I was acutely aware of the common perception that returnees come with an attitude baggage that includes a seemingly never ending series of patronising attitudes. As a returnee, I did feel a sense of cultural alienation but was acutely aware that I did not want to be a passenger, an observer or, even worse, a tourist. This was “back home”, for heaven’s sake!
Without my noticing it however, over the last four years that I have lived in India, I must have realised that “back home” wasn’t really India anymore. Indeed, without my realising it, I hadn’t used the term “home” as often as I had, while I lived in Melbourne. The concept of “back home” itself had become quite alien to me. Certainly India did not resonate anymore as “back home”.
I realised this because the steward’s question completely shook me. After what seemed like an eternity, I answered awkwardly, “No, actually. I’m travelling from home to the city I currently work in.”
I was initially shocked at my own answer. But on reflection, I started to come to terms with that immediate and seemingly knee-jerk assertion.
It isn’t as though I have suddenly developed a sense of dislike for India. It is not as if I have given up on the concept of India or my love for the country. It is not as if I had discovered a new sense of detachment from India and her people. I love my life here in India as much as I did earlier, in my memories of India as a young lad. It is just that, to me, the “back home” question speaks more of the images that get associated with the roots of who and what I am today. For me, home is less about the place where my family resides or one strongly associated with my memories as a child. Nor is it just about the soil of the place I was born in.
Today, home is more about the place I am happiest, where I am most at ease, where I am least awkward, where my friends live, where I can run in peace, where I can laugh at or crack a silly joke without being judged, where I feel the air I breathe travel through my body, where I feel an unstoppable and relentless surge of energy inside me, where I sense and witness a clarity of thought, where I see maximal alignment of my own values with the values of the community I am a part of, where I want to (and feel that I can) contribute and make an impact to the society around me, where I can be who I want to be...
In that sense, home to me had become the place where my mind, body, intellect and soul are in sync with the earth, the environment, the community and the contexts around me. It had become the place where I fashioned for myself a sense of my own, unique identity. I had unwittingly allowed for the possibility that my home might even change with time and that, a few years from now, I might refer to New York or Toronto, say, as “back home”.
It is said that it is only when we step out of our existential comfort zones that we can see with clarity all that is important to us. This is particularly relevant in our world today where it is said that, for a variety of reasons – political, social and economic – over 250 million people live in a country other than the country of their birth, and over 700 million people migrate to a different “home” within their own country (read here).
My stint in India has allowed me to see more clearly that this concept of “back home” is mildly irrelevant in today’s world and that I had used it many a time without thinking about it clearly enough.
As the steward moved away from me, headset in hand, I drew her attention again and said, “No scratch that. I am travelling from what is currently “back home” to the place I currently work. Of course, this could all change next year.”
-- Mohan (@mohank)