When I teach Advanced Business Writing, I emphasize process: pre-write, write, revise. When composing an email — especially one that has high stakes involved for the sender or the receiver — the benefits of thinking through audience, purpose & intended outcome (pre-writing), then choosing a strategy, researching, & composing (writing), and making time for revising (both substantive editing and proofreading) are obvious. When a communication matters — we need, as writers, to make time for process. That’s how we make writing work for, instead of against us. The downside is that process takes time and most of us are short on it. Knowing that the bulk of our written communication in a day is likely to be routine emails, I wondered… could taking time to craft a reply to an email harm a working relationship?
In a study of over 16 billion emails, researchers (Kooti, Aiello, Grbovic, Lerman, Mantrach, 2015) found that within email conversation, 90 percent of replies come fast: within the day. And half of all replies are extremely fast: within 47 minutes. Their data feels familiar to me — I expect that if I don’t get an answer to an email within a couple of days, I’m not going to get one. I read the lack of a reply as either a “no,” “too busy,” “can’t be bothered,” or, “I didn’t get this message for some reason.” If a message is important to you, replying within the day should be too.
The researchers were looking not just at individual emails, but email threads or conversations. They were looking for patterns within conversations and found that replies tended to become more rapid as the conversation progressed, excepting the final reply which arrived much more slowly. Because we send tens or hundreds of emails in a day, this shape of email conversations is likely familiar too us — we might expect a lengthy delay in a reply to signal the conversation is ending. If we don’t mean to end a conversation prematurely, we shouldn’t take too long to craft a reply, without anticipating that the receiver could read this any number of ways.
I expect receivers to read into the length of reply time, and when I feel that my reply has taken too long, I apologize.
Kooti, F., Aiello, L. M., Grbovic, M., Lerman, K., & Mantrach, A. (2015). Evolution of Conversations in the Age of Email Overload. Retrieved from http://www-scf.usc.edu/~kooti/files/kooti_email.pdf