When Can I Expect an Email Response?

August 29, 2006 at 1:11 am 51 comments

No new messages. Why is it taking so long? Did they receive it? Did it get put in the junk mail folder?

How long should you wait before emailing again? You don’t want to seem desperate…

Waiting for an email reply seems to be a common occurance in this day and age of email reliance. We look for contextual clues to why a response may be taking longer than usual, and decide when we should follow up the email.

A paper by Tyler & Tang looks at the the email-replying habits of a group of corporate users in this 2003 paper.

Here’s what they found:

  • Most users check their email “constantly”
  • Users would try to project a responsiveness image. For example, sending a short reply if a complete reply might take longer than usual, intentionally delaying a reply to make themselves seem busy, or planing out timing strategies for email with read receipts.
  • Users would look at shared calendars or other means to estimate how long they should expect a reply
  • If an email was urgent, users often used voicemail as a way to bring attention to their email
  • Emails were written differently, depending on how long of a delay was expected before a reply (especially if their recipients were in a faraway time zone
  • Users would try to reciprocate email behaviors — responding quickly to people who responded quickly to them, and lowering their responsiveness to people who responded slowly to them in the past

Based on past response times, users had a response expection threshold for other users, which was the amount of time in which they expected a response (most said 24 hours). There was also a later breakdown perception threshold — a time when they would follow up on the email by phone or with another, more urgent looking email.

Tyler, J. R. & Tang, J. C. (2003). When Can I Expect an Email Response? A Study of Rhythms in Email Usage. Proceedings from ECSCW ’03: European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, 239- 258. [PDF]

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Entry filed under: Communication, Email, Psychology. Tags: .

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51 Comments Add your own

  • 1. audrey  |  August 30, 2006 at 2:09 am

    some additional behaviors that I’ve seen while working at a 30+ person startup:

    – certain people respond to all emails in person, by getting up to talk to them or yelling across cubicles

    – certain people prefer to communicate by email even when the recipient is sitting right next to them

    – there is another group of people who send very few work-related emails, but who send interesting and/or funny emails to the entire company now and then

    Reply
  • 2. sferik  |  August 30, 2006 at 5:30 pm

    ESPs like VerticalResponse provide detailed reporting about your email.

    Since they only charge a penny per email sent, it can be useful if you need to know that an email was opened by its recpieint.

    Reply
  • 3. Someone  |  August 30, 2006 at 8:41 pm

    1cent per email? Email is free.

    Reply
  • 4. Fred Pugsley  |  August 31, 2006 at 12:28 am

    Email responsiveness is a cultural thing within a community of interest. Within a tier-one US IT vendor like HP or Sun (or Microsoft or IBM), email is an essential part of the culture and rapid responsiveness is a prerequisite of working there. In other firms, email doesn’t matter that much & folks take their time.

    In many developed nations, the use of handheld wireless email has changed the email culture. Many other nations are following this trend. I hope this doesn’t lead to the kind of over-use and abuse of email as there is in the technology community…

    Reply
  • 5. Marty R. Milette  |  August 31, 2006 at 2:21 am

    Different cultures have different ways of handling email (and other communications). Russians, for example, will simply stop replying to email if they are not interested, don’t agree, or agree but intend to steal the idea for themselves. One of my major tasks is to ‘educate’ Russians and Europeans on the importance of prompt replies to email — even if just to say, “sorry, we’re not interested” or whatever. Not replying to emails is the ultimate in rudeness and unprofessionalism (as viewed by most westerners), and something that needs to be changed.

    Reply
  • 6. Bryan  |  August 31, 2006 at 4:09 am

    e-mail often destroys communication rather than improving it. e.g. “certain people prefer to communicate by email even when the recipient is sitting right next to them”; E-mail is impersonal, takes longer. Look at the simple act of speaking to someone compared with the e-mail exchange to get to the same point.
    E-mail is also used by people as a defence to cover their actions (CYA), “cc-ing” all and sundry. or when they don’t really want to face the person.
    Finally as one who gets a great deal of mail all of which has to be read whether relevant or not – a comment on non reply – Accepted if somebody takes the extra effort tpo write to you on a subject. One should at east acknowledge it. However, is also the height of rudeness to send mail to somebody who is not interested or does not want it. They should not expect a reply.

    Reply
  • 7. Mike  |  August 31, 2006 at 5:30 am

    Some of us like to make a “paper trail” by posting important things over the corprate network even despite that the recipient is close by.

    This makes it easier to find old information when it is needed. Just do a search in the In/outbox.

    Reply
  • 8. Joe  |  August 31, 2006 at 6:32 am

    Interesting comment about searching in/out boxes. In the days before google desktop, the only reliable and rapid content search system I had was my Eudora email. I therefore developed the habit of mailing things to MYSELF. Like software license keys, or bits and pieces of things I wanted to remember. I could then search for it later. For the important stuff, it’s still useful as a “undelete” function of last resort. The one thing I NEVER do is delete messages from my email database. I think it’s maybe 10 gig now. I have like 15 years of email in it.

    Reply
  • 9. Tom  |  August 31, 2006 at 8:19 am

    I prefer email to voicemail. I can’t cut & paste spoken words. I can review the email easily. email is recorded; spoken words are not.

    Meetings and other face to face conversations are useful. I’ve been in an environment where IM was used constantly and it *can* replace spoken word *IFF* the culture & participants use it right. The group was able to expand from a dept to working across 4 time zones. My boss (who participated) moved his office from next door to 2 time zones away. We prefered it because instead of being in a meeting and out of touch, he could concall to the meeting and remain online in IM. It increased his availability.

    Reply
  • 10. Maurene Caplan Grey  |  August 31, 2006 at 9:30 am

    As the study points out, alternative forms of e-communications are being used by senders to prompt the recipient to read her email:

    “A common tactic we observed when a message was important or urgent was to send a voicemail in conjunction with an email. Typically, the email contained detailed data or attached documents, and the voicemail signaled the urgency of the message. … Typically, the email was sent as the “primary” message, and the voicemail served as a pointer to the email, but a few subjects mentioned the converse”

    The poor communicative habits learned with email use are being carried over in the sender’s and recipient’s use of alternative e-communication media. If for whatever reason, the sender cannot get the desired response by one communicative means, the sender will try and try again through whatever means finally works. In doing so, the naturalness of human communication is lost.

    Some organizations enter into a mass training program in order to change an ingrained emailing culture. It is a horrendous undertaking at best. Old habits die hard. Additionally, new employees bring their emailing habits with them and have to be “re-programmed.” Other organizations have literally shut down the email system for a day a week – another exercise doomed to fail in changing culture.

    New types of e-communications are being introduced into the organization daily (if not sanctioned, then at a grassroots level) — examples include: various flavors of instant messaging, with the ability to send and receive voice over IP calls, video, shared workspaces and more; Web conferencing; blogs, kiwis and other new participatory media.

    It’s happening now whether the company is ready or not. Some of the areas that companies should look at are: Introducing corporate policies, training, support for emerging communicative technologies and researching how such technologies can be used to change an email-only culture into a “natural feeling” multi- e-communications culture. The alternative is the ostrich approach and, when the head comes out of the ground, the problems of email will be multiplied across every type of e-communications media being used.

    See Messaging On Your Own Terms for an example of how the recipient could control the message instead of the other way around. New models can break old habits.

    Reply
  • 11. George Needham  |  August 31, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    I disagree with Marty Milette (#5 above, if you’ve mislaid your lucky number scorecard). There’s a raft of e-mail I don’t answer. I don’t respond to commercial solicitations, even if they aren’t necessarily spam. I don’t respond when I’m just one of hundreds of people who’ve been copied on a message in which I had no interest in the first place. I ignore ad hominem attacks, whether directed at me or someone else. Ignoring an e-mail is not always the “ultimate in rudeness;” sometimes it’s just the ultimate in discretion.

    Reply
  • 12. Jon  |  September 1, 2006 at 8:42 am

    Looks like the study also didn’t find that “most people don’t understand the tone of somebody in their email” – as in, you can’t joke with friends over email the same way you joke with them over a few drinks.

    Reply
  • 13. Swen  |  September 1, 2006 at 6:52 pm

    i love and hate email.

    i come from an IT background, and studied it at uni. it is my preferred form of communication, however i am fully aware if its effect on people, and its effect of “desensitising” a situation, and to a certian extent, people. email really has changed our culture, and the way people interact, and i think it was for the worst. the fact that email is limited to the user’s own literal ability is one huge limiting factor. expressing emotions and emphasising importance via email is practically impossible for some.

    however, i now work in business aviation and email is a key element of my work day, and i couldnt imagine attempting my job without it. the speed of information transfer, the ability to review any information at will, and wherever you want, is a luxury i could not perform my job without. although, in this example i include other versions of online textual communication under the title of “email”, the function it provides to me is essentially the same.

    Reply
  • 14. Hans  |  September 4, 2006 at 6:20 am

    If it is urgent, use the phone or go see the person. You cannot and should not expect people to be on their email and checking it all the time. (That is poor time management). Besides, if it is urgent you would want to know whether the other person is at all able to accomodate the issue in his/her own schedule.

    Reply
  • 15. renox  |  September 6, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    I do sometimes use email to a person next to me, and there can be several reason:
    a) it’s not important, so I don’t want to disturb him.
    b) this is a complex issue, and if we discuss by voice, I won’t probably remember everything we’ve said.
    c) leaving a paper trail can be useful (a minority of case, usually when I object to a decision).

    On the other hand, I avoid using emails with other people who
    1) do not answer their email: in one case I’ve had to send *5* email to get a reply from one guy, now I use phone even for trivial questions, too bad for him if I disturb him..
    2) don’t know how to use email: usually they reply above the question or out of the topic, or mix several subjects in one email, making the discussion nearly impossible to follow.

    And in some cases, emails can turn into some kind of frenzy for ridiculous reasons, it’s better in this case to stop the wheels and schedule a phone meeting.

    Reply
  • 16. bobbilou  |  September 29, 2006 at 9:17 am

    I give people a week to respond, maybe two-depending on the urgency before I call. My husband and I work together at home, and if I need something to get done, or get his attention…I e-mail him and he’s across the room. It works! (we are always on-line).
    Bobbi

    Reply
  • 17. DCD  |  November 21, 2006 at 8:56 pm

    Like most things, this is something that will evolve. Unlike most things, it will have to do so on an unprecedented scale in an unprecedented time-scale.

    The reasons are myriad: there are differences due to culture and due degree of techno-friendliness, but also due to the technology itself — compare a person using a dial-up ISP and a POP3 client with a wireless laptop user on broadband using web mail — or a PDA user for that matter.

    Instead of sending links to YouTube videos, some people prefer to e-mail them around. Same with “funny” pictures. This is like friendly spam — unwanted, unsolicited junk mail from friends and family that often require downloads and plug ins and are of large and slow file sizes.

    Friendly or not, spam can slow downloading of e-mails and would have an effect on response to an e-mail sandwiched somewhere amidst it all.

    Forwarding funnies is all part of the e-mail learning curve; it is what rubs away the technofear some people have with PCs. newbies to e-mail love sending round the jokes and the chain letters. We have to cut them some slack.

    No-one can come up with a standard netiquette regarding forwarding, replying, deleting without reading or sending a receipt. As pop3 e-mails can have the time stamp manipulated easily enough, and as e-mails can easily be doctored,and as networks often detach attachments in archiving, they are not really to be relied upon.

    E-mailing has changed a great deal in a very short space of time, and it will continue to change, however, I believe that over time e-mail has greatly devalued as a result of worms, viruses, spam and friendly spam.

    As a result, an e-mail is becoming a confirmation, a note, a message, a reminder. It is not important in itself, and so in a world of big in boxes, responses will be expected less and less.

    Reply
  • 18. Dave  |  November 22, 2006 at 10:53 pm

    I agree. If I send an email to a company regarding their services or products, then I would expect a reply pretty soon as the onus is on them to get my business. And this is what happens.

    But when I complain by email I rarely get a reply or else I get a do-not-reply reply automated and annoying. I have learned that for anything important to ME, I have to fax or use snailmail.

    Forget email and forget call centres and premium rate lines!

    Email is worthless now. I get funnies and pass this on chains and it is all just background noise. Even my work inbox fills with emails to EVERYONE about something for sale, something found, or lost, or a notice about someone leaving or a note about holidays.

    I do not pass on or FWD anything any more. I NEVER REPLY to anyone any more. Ever.

    If I absolutely have to respond to an email with an email, then I will start a new email, and it will simply state that I will be sending a more considered response by fax.

    There’s no way I would let my emails lie unread (like the ones sent to me). lol!

    Reply
  • 19. Sam  |  November 28, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    I’ve learned that some people are just plain incompetent when it comes to reading e-mails. They either overlook them, don’t read them thoroughly enough, forget to respond, or something are just too *lazy* to respond. I used to think I was intentionally being ignored, but eventually I recognized that sometimes it’s just general incompetence. Needless to say, I avoid sending e-mails to such people, at least if I’m looking for a response.

    In general, though, I agree that not responding to personal e-mails (as opposed to mass or commercial e-mails) is extremely rude and unprofessional. For instance, one of my co-workers recently left our company. I sent him an e-mail shortly afterward to see how he was doing, and he responded. A couple of months later, I sent him another one to see how he was coming out at his new job (just to be a caring former co-worker, not because I really enjoy his conversation or anything). Anyway, he never responded. Needless to say, I will never be sending him another e-mail, and my opinion of him has changed dramatically for the worse. But I do realize that it wasn’t personal–it just shows what he is really like.

    Reply
    • 20. Ben  |  December 2, 2009 at 3:19 am

      @Sam: I think you should avoid jumping to conclusions on the basis of one unresponded email. Sometimes, it could be that he was transitioning to a different email address. Besides, I think this is more a reflection of you than it is of your ex-coworker. Why would you want to adopt this extra burden of “caring” for someone when you don’t really enjoy it? Chances are if you don’t really enjoy conversing with the person in question, he probably feels likewise about you. It is unfair for you to expect that kind of effort from others just because you have some kind of personal standard to uphold. Not everyone feels up to being nice and friendly just because you are. But if this is what you must do then do it, but just don’t get all judgmental when people don’t respond the way you expect them to.

      Reply
  • 21. Little Bunny Foo Foo  |  December 26, 2006 at 11:36 pm

    Different strokes for different folks. Some people are better at getting and giving information when it is audible. Others are better with visual.

    In addition, there are text processing tools (perl, awk, sed, grep, even NOTEPAD) that make it easier for me to process text data than for me to process audio.

    But, that’s me. Others may find it entirely the opposite. Having Dyslexia or APD (Audio Perception Disorder), for example, would skew which means of communication one would prefer to engage in and respond to. IOW, someone might not respond to an e-mail because it is hard for them to process written information.

    Reply
  • 22. meadows  |  February 2, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks for all of your email opinions. I am teaching a class to Correctional Officers on how to use better communication skills via email. This is good stuff.

    Reply
  • 23. Geoff Dodd  |  February 24, 2007 at 8:38 am

    Interesting that the study was done in 2003 because I find myself doing exactly the same things in 2007. Geoff.

    Reply
  • 24. Pab  |  January 9, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Thanks for all your contributions. Does anyone know if there has been some similar studies done on IM?

    Reply
  • 25. George  |  April 4, 2008 at 11:08 am

    I agree with Marty, and would like to add that if you don’t respond to an email, the other person has no way of knowing whether or not you actually received it.

    Reply
  • 26. Image Consultant  |  July 10, 2009 at 3:07 am

    Thanks for sharing this info! It was really interesting. I will surely come back again here.

    Reply
  • 27. James  |  May 8, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Emails? What happened to the good old postal letters? I know that emailing online is efficient and all but writing letters sort of brought light in the mail. You could tell if someone was happy when they wrote the letter because their handwriting would jump up and done. You could tell if someone was sad because there would be tears imprinted on the letter. Emails I believe can’t express emotions as would a written letter could. But in some cases its not all about emotions. It could be useful for urgent dispatches or advertising I guess.

    Reply
  • 28. Neal  |  August 4, 2011 at 6:40 am

    People in corporations use e-mail in a political, power-playing, manner. E-mail non-response is used as a power-tool to withhold needed information from someone you want to frustrate and thwart. I have watched a colleague ( accidentally while visiting him in his office, he continued to work on his emails, with the screen visible to me) pick through emails from superiors and immediately respond and ignore all others.

    I have worked with corporate officers, who have to respond with only one word, “approve”, or ” do not approve” on some issue that needed to pass a corporate “gate”, and they would sit on it for weeks, knowing full well, that it is near torture for the person needing the approval (say a programmer who requested permission to download a free, open-source tool). It is sad when the open-source tool can be downloaded, usable, and free, but corporate policy requires an IT officer to approve the download. This is just an example of using e-mail as a tool in office power politics, I don’t want to get into a debate over the security policies and whether programmers should be allowed to download open-source tools or not. That is a totally different topic.

    E-mail, particularly CC and BCC, are powerful political tools – as used by many ineffective people.

    Reply
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