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)


  1. Thank heavens I have not worked in India (or will I) and I have no input on official replies, I still think this applies to personal communication as well. I just do not understand why some (especially of Indian origin) folks do not acknowledge an email. It's annoying as hell. Bah!

  2. Beautifully written - just like all your other posts :) ! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it and the message well taken!

  3. Brilliant piece I must say. I agree with almost everything you wrote, and they are articulated in as clear a way as possible. But, I felt you are somewhere stuck in the loophole of your own argument when you say "... 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." Do you really think 'empathy' can do any better than the situation you are facing? Or, for that matter, while dictating the terms of email etiquette, are you being even microscopically empathetic? I think it is all about a code, a frame, a grammar, and a negotiation of a space which one should know before entering into that space. It has nothing to do with empathy, because when a person writes "It is part of professional hygiene and basic business etiquette that everyone should have", with a normative usage of the word 'should', he is clearly not being empathetic from any angle.
    This does not, in any way, mean that I support the e-rudeness. All what I wanted to express is, the logic of putting oneself in someone else's shoe (if that is ever possible) is going to help this situation. This situation probably needs an organic development of etiquette. And etiquette, as something taught by us from some hegemonic frame of 'decency', also puts itself under scholarly scanner of usefulness in a country where that 'professional frame' is largely unavailable. We may have to push ourself further to find an organic solution of this direct expression of 'I ignore you' messages, and to move towards a smoother solution.

    1. Wonderful comment Anirban and I agree with you.

      Without wanting to be (or sound) defensive, taken on its own, I agree that the statement that you reproduced

      "... 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."

      does not demonstrate empathy. I think it should be taken in the context of the comments I do make that show an understanding of the "tsunami" of emails we are constantly deluged by.

      Be that as it may, I agree with you that we need an organic solution and a development.

      Such an organic and home-grown solution -- which is, simultaneously, applicable and acceptable in the global context that we exist in -- would be most necessary and appropriate too.

      Wonderful comment Anirban. Thank you...