May 29, 2000
9:59 AM   Subscribe

What's a reasonable amount of time, for you, to expect someone to reply to an email?
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posted by baylink (38 comments total)
This was buried in the middle of "Blog Nicely II: the Sequel", and I didn't want it to get lost. What *is* a reasonable amount of time in which to expect a reply from someone to whom you've sent email? It's different that paper mail, and phone calls, and pages...

It depends, too, on how much email (you think) the person gets -- you don't necessarily expect a response from Jerry Pournelle instantly (though I've actually gotten a couple in a few minutes).

How do you set this expectation? And, for that matter, how does this whole topic affect how assiduous *you* are in replying to email?

I'm online almost all day every day; my average reply time is either 10 minutes, or tomorrow. I rarely let it go longer than that. You?
posted by baylink at 10:02 AM on May 29, 2000

Three other possible factors:

o persistent or dial-up connection?

o computer always on? does it have a stand by mode?

o use an e-mail notification utility or e-mail program set to automatically check e-mail?

You probably can set your expecations person-by-person and previous reply experiences.
posted by tomalak at 10:19 AM on May 29, 2000

My own reply time varies on a few things. Most business/web site related email gets answered the same day, for sure.

Most of my friends don't use email, but for those that do, the delay varies. In return, they get much lengthier and (hopefully) more interesting replies.

I do dialup, but that doesn't stop me from checking email very frequently.
posted by hijinx at 10:44 AM on May 29, 2000

I was talking about this at work, which was a result of seeing some blogs where the owners said "I emailed this famous person, this other one, and this other one, none of them emailed back, they are all assholes."

I remember when I was new to the web, and I sent a few questions to "web celebs" back then. I know that from the start, I never thought I'd get a reply from someone remotely busy/famous. Once in a while I would get a reply back, and I'd be pleasantly surprised.

I wondered if users just coming to the web would feel the same or differently, and after talking to a few people, they agreed - they don't *expect* replies from many people.

So if you sent an email to someone and they didn't email back, that person is really busy, and not automatically an asshole.

FWIW, I try to answer email the same day I get it, but once in a while I lose track/go on vacation/fry my hard drive/forget and it may take 3-5 days to answer instead. And the same day thing is how I'd like to be treated, so that's how I treat people that email me.

Oh - there is one more thing. Once in a while I get emails saying how much someone enjoyed some old page on my site, but they don't ask any questions or anything. I should reply back to let them know I got it, but there's really not a lot to say besides "thanks! glad you enjoyed it," so often times I don't email them at all if I'm up to my neck in work. I hope I'm not a bad person for that, I never expect a reply unless I ask a question of someone...
posted by mathowie at 10:51 AM on May 29, 2000

I expect myself to reply to any email that does not require a third party's involvement within 24 hours, any day of the week, any week of the year--if the message actually warrants a response.

This comes from ten years in the IT business, in which I learned early the value of handling everything as soon as possible. It avoids project pile-ups. Should a day-long snafu come along, you won't already have a mess of messages stuck in your email queue.

People on the other end usually expect a slower return, thankfully.

I discovered today that a week is just about as long as my new landlord in Paris is willing to wait for a response--but it's because she's a net amateur (or maybe because she's French). Like most newbies, she expects all the formalities of the written world: every email is responded to again and again until the very last exchange is two thank-you's passing on the wire. She also thinks it's normal to wait a couple of days for a response, whereas for me, two days on a pending matter is the same as two weeks: too long.

Me, I think you should assume I received your message unless you see my obituary in the paper. Messages that say nothing but "Thanks" or "Thank you" are valueless bit-wasters and do not require a response.

This reminds me: I'm often in the habit of using return receipts on my email messages. It works often enough to be a real boon when I want to make sure my message was received, if not read.
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:51 AM on May 29, 2000

I usually deliberately delay at least a day, sometimes a week, especially with family, lest I develop an expectation for speedy turnaround.
posted by luke at 11:18 AM on May 29, 2000

There is definitely a difference between business mail and personal mail. Business mail is always answered immediately. That usually translates into a few minutes. The datacenters know my cellphone's email address, so if servers go down, they can get in touch with me anywhere immediately.

I usually respond to personal mail within 30 minutes or so. Like Mo Nickels said, it's just a lot easier to get it done and out of the way. Sometimes it's longer, if I'm not in front of my workstation. Other times, it may take me a while to compose a lengthy letter with references and links and all that good stuff.

As for sending unsolicited email, I have a policy of simply assuming that a) it's been read and b) whomever I sent mail to is as busy as I am, and probably doesn't have time to reply. Maybe I'm cynical, but when I email someone out of the blue, I don't hang my hopes on getting a response. I am always pleasantly surprised when I do get an e back, that's good for a whole day's worth of WarmFuzzies.

I'm no celebrity, but I do get a fair amount of emails from people who visited my site and want me to administrate their Linux boxes. If they are polite, or have an unusual problem, I write back with either a quick answer or the link to some docs. But rude or exceedingly terse mails get piped to /dev/null immediately. And I rarely answer "i like your site [EOM]" mails. I'll always check out their site, but unless something catches my eye, I won't write a reply.
posted by katchomko at 11:31 AM on May 29, 2000

The eternal questions.

"Is this feeling of love real, or will it fade?"

"How much do you charge for a website?"

"What's a reasonable amount of time, for you, to expect someone to reply to an email?"

The eternal answer:

"It varies."

I sometimes answer instantly, sometimes wait until I have something to say. I try to respond quickly. Some letters take a few days, particularly when I am working a 20 hour day, and the letter demands more than "thank you very much" or "you'll find the answer here (link)."

Sometimes it seems like responding to email is a full-time job in itself.

Sometimes I am traveling. Sometimes my DSL connection dies for an entire day. Sometimes people who've written to me read something into the silence that is not there.

Sometimes people who've written to "Dr Web" with a question about web design are so encouraged by the speedy reply that they begin bombarding me with questions, one after the other. When that happens, I deliberately delay the answer, for reasons similar to Luke's. If they keep hitting me with questions, I start answering selectively, and ignoring some of the letters. After a while, if the situation becomes ridiculous, I explain how they can find the answers for themselves.

Sometimes my friends are too busy to reply. That is okay, they are my friends.

Sometimes a friend does not reply to two or three messages, spaced across several weeks. Then I wonder that there may be a problem in the relationship, or that I may have offended them without meaning to. So I ask. It is always somewhat embarrassing to ask questions like that, especially when there is in fact no problem, since it merely exposes me for the vulnerable bundle of nerves that I am.

To avoid placing others in that delicate condition, I try to answer promptly, lest they think I have a problem with them.

Some mail I filter to the trash without reading. This happens very rarely, only after a series of painfully stupid interactions. When I make that decision it is easy and painless. "Enough."

In that situation, if the perpetrator correspondent is still writing to me, the answer is that they will never receive a reply because I will never see what they have written.
posted by Zeldman at 11:38 AM on May 29, 2000

P.S. "Negative blogging" is not the only way to hurt people's feelings.

Sometimes I write to friends or people I think are friends and they never write back. If the letter was personal and was obviously written in hopes of a response, the silence can be hurtful, even if it was inadvertent.

Even if the person is "too busy," if the letter was personal and a relationship existed, after a few days the silence sends a clear message: "You are not that important to me."

In which case, I stop writing to that person.

Life's too short, and there are plenty of people who do care about us.
posted by Zeldman at 11:42 AM on May 29, 2000

I never expect a reply. That way when the person does reply I won't be disappointed no matter how long it takes them. ;-) There are certain people who I do expect replies from right away and then when they don't reply me I get angry. Not naming names of course.

I take ages to reply emails. I only reply right away to certain people. The others can just be patient and I'll get around to it when I have time.

posted by FAB4GIRL at 11:44 AM on May 29, 2000

I used to maintain a fairly popular hacking archive on the old and on l0pht. I probably got 2-300 e-mails a day for a while there. many of them were... well... not worth answering. Believe it or not, I answered every one of them. Looking back, I don't think it was nessescary, but I did it anyway.

For me, both business and personal, I answer mails within that day at least. Even if I don't have time to generate a suitable reply, I'll tell them so. I feel that we've all assumed a responsibility to maintain a level of communication.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 11:55 AM on May 29, 2000

*Sigh* I think I'll join this discussion.... My post about what Powazek said about how "There's a human being behind a personal site (paraphrased)" was not supposed to become "Blog Nicely II"... Let the angry little trolls tear it apart, I wish I never posted it...</Rant>
I'm one of those people that feel everyone who writes to me *deserves* a response. We all get different types of emails...So I devised a system:

* Stuff from my business site, where you fill out the FormMail Box, goes into a separate folder in outlook express...that's responded to first. (1 hour/12 hours maximum)

* Someone writing in with a comment , question or technical problem... I usually put these letters in my "Drafts" folder *immediately* so I know to get back to them (12- 24 hours)

* Personal correspondence is in the middle of the night (aka "My Playtime"- Whenever the hell I get around to it.)

*...There's the usual junk from MLM'ers that post clever little titles, making it look like familiar email... They're responsible for important letters getting buried it my inbox. Each day I sift them out, delete them...then retire to a room with candles and a pentagram where I curse their family members with birth defects and painful testacles.

**Times may vary when I decide to sleep late (6 hours?) Pop my caffeine pills and start a brand new day **

posted by EricBrooksDotCom at 12:05 PM on May 29, 2000

I've found that if I don't answer a message right away (be it from a dear friend or not) it often gets buried beneath other incoming mail.

Once that happens, weeks can go by.

It seems, however that this thread speaks to a larger issue - the psychological impact of e-mail correspondance. Truly, the medium makes for some strange releationships. Someone ought to write a book about it.
posted by aladfar at 12:14 PM on May 29, 2000

I think I inadvertantly started this too. I TRY to respond to email within the day, but when I get well over 100 on the same subject and I am repeating myself - I get a little bogged down and want a break. Unfortunately, there are some that get lost in the shuffle.

Email answering CAN be a full time thing and sometimes, as hard as it may be, you have to shut the computer down and walk away. I TRY to continue my life with some "normalcy" away from the computer. I have a son and a job and friends who don't compute that all require my attention away from my beloved mac. Priorities that I have set sometimes dictate that the email has to go on the back burner for a while.
posted by thinkdink at 12:49 PM on May 29, 2000

I think people who get pissed about not getting replies quickly are probably those who were introduced to email through AOL or corporate systems. They just have a different conception of what email is than other people do, in my experience. Though I haven't yet figured out why.

I don't get a hell of a lot of mail, so I usually reply within a day. As for expecting replies, I just don't. (Unless, of course, it's from Zeldman, and then I get pissed if I don't get one within 20 minutes. I mean, if he's not going to share the secret to eternal wakefullness, he can at least answer my email. :)
posted by Freakho at 1:16 PM on May 29, 2000

Zeldman never shared the secret with you, Freakho? You must have missed the MetaFilter thread:

JZ has the "time-stopping" watch from The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything. He freezes time and answers all his email.

He used to loan the watch out to people with similar time-frame problems... but well, some of us used it to take advantage of "frozen" women, rather than use the power for good. So he stopped.
posted by EricBrooksDotCom at 1:29 PM on May 29, 2000

Oh, well that explains everything. Hey! Who just hit me?
posted by Freakho at 1:50 PM on May 29, 2000

Two days. That's the industry standard.

(to Sue, shop talk)
...I used to wait two days. Now everyone waits two
days. Three days is kinda the money now, don't
you think?

...Yeah. But two's enough not to look anxious...

Yeah, but three days is kinda the money...

The guys laugh.

Laugh all you want, but if you [email] too soon you can
scare off a nice baby who's ready to party.

Don't listen to him. You [email] whenever it feels right.
to you.

How long you guys gonna wait to [email] your honeys?

Six days.
posted by inviolable at 2:00 PM on May 29, 2000


God I wish I'd said that.

Swingers, baby.
posted by Zeldman at 2:37 PM on May 29, 2000

So who are some of the best and the worst at returning mail in the web scene?

My vote for "best" goes to Mr. Webby himself, Halcyon. Usually I get a reply within MINUTES of sending it off. Now that's dedication.
posted by Succa at 3:02 PM on May 29, 2000

To those of you who respond to all email - and quickly - I tip my hat. You're better men than I.
I try. I do the best I can. Business/client email gets answered within 24 hours without fail. But personal mail is a different story. I get to it when I can. Sometimes that means it has to pile up until I find a Sunday where I can spend 2 or 3 hours going through/answering it all at once.
I would never want to be thought a snot, but I have a business and a house to run - I have work that must be done and deadlines that must be met - I have a husband I love spending time with - and I need sleep, as well. I think that some of you guys have sorted how to fit more than 24 hours into each day, and I would like it very, very much if you would share.
Someone wrote not too long ago (I can't remember who, unfortunately) that they feel that if a person doesn't have the time to send a lengthy response to an email, they should send a two word note saying thanks. I don't believe for a minute that anyone would be satisfied with that; I think it would probably cause MORE of the "she's such a snot" style dissatisfaction than not getting a response at all. Besides, I don't feel right sending "Thank You, Elise" to anyone who's taken the time to put an email to me together. I'm also not superwoman, though. And, quite frankly, the day I'm ready to cut back on my sleep (I don't get enough as it is) or neglect my husband to answer personal email, I hope someone drives over and shoots me in the head.
I wish I didn't ever have to let personal email go a week (sometimes even two), but sometimes, I simply have to. I do get to every email (that requires a response) eventually, though - and with more than two words.
posted by EliseT at 3:02 PM on May 29, 2000

So, what, Eric... I don't rock anymore? :-)

One of the reasons I asked this is because I'm fixing to start up my "Internet 101" seminars again, and I want to be able to *give* people a founding on what's reasonable here. Thanks for the opinions; they mesh reasonably well with how I already looked at it, but there were several good points I'd've missed.
posted by baylink at 3:21 PM on May 29, 2000

I dunno if I'm up for naming names about who gives good email and who doesn't, but since Succa mentioned Halcyon, can I just say that way back in the way, it wasn't so much that famed bod that won me over, it was that he found something I wrote and took the time to send me a short, very friendly note commenting on it. Out of the blue! No stalking required! It totally made my day, mostly because of my assumption that someone like him just didn't have the time for the unwashed masses. It's *good* to realize, sometimes, that your own cynicism's gotten out of hand.

The question of how long it takes people to respond to email goes two ways---I think people's *assumptions* on the subject mean a lot of email just goes unwritten. Back in aforementioned day, I never would have sent Halcyon or someone like him (well, of his stature, how's that) an email because, you know, if you assume you'll be "rejected" and don't make an overture because of that, there's less suspense in that than there is in trying anyway. You know? You can't blow me off because I did it myself already. I hate that. I hate knowing (I've had some confessions) that there might be people who'd like to write me but don't because they assume I don't have the time, or don't care. But I'm guilty of contributing to it---I still do it, with certain Web Celebs (at least the ones I haven't met and made the realization that, oh hell, they're just *people*, you'd think I'd learn)---and in spite of several New Year's Resolutions in a row to the contrary, I still sometimes lose email I really *did* mean to respond to, and thereby contribute, maybe, to others' assumptions that people mostly suck.

I hope I don't suck. Mostly I am just easily distracted.
posted by Sapphireblue at 3:22 PM on May 29, 2000

Since I may have triggered this discussion with a remark in that other thread, let me clearly state that I don't expect an immediate response to an e-mail sent on a Friday afternoon right before a holiday weekend.
posted by harmful at 3:31 PM on May 29, 2000

The funny thing is, I often end up answering comparatively less important emails more promptly than the really thought-provoking ones. The reason is pretty simple: I feel that the thought-provoking ones deserve more time and more thought in my response to them. This means sometimes mails to me can go a week or so before I end up responding to them.

Also: I have Hep C and sometimes when I have a "flare-up" I can feel out of it for days on end. I don't answer my mail when I feel like shit because that will end up reflecting in my response when I'd really rather it didn't.

Patience is a good thing in the email world. I have no job, but I know most people *do* work and as such, I am learning that an unanswered email does not mean that the thing I wrote is necessarily being overlooked. With the advent of the internet, it is possible for people to have over 200 correspondents. We never had that many correspondents in our lives before! We are still learning how to budget our time to fit these new phenomena.
posted by monde at 3:54 PM on May 29, 2000

If we're naming names - I gotta say Zeldman is the best on returning email. It may not be instant, but it's more reliable than I could ever be.

As for the worst, I've joked with Lance in person about waiting weeks for answers and that I need his "top secret" red-phone address when I want to ask an urgent question. I think Carl had something up recently about sitting down and answering all his mail going back to early 1999.
posted by mathowie at 3:59 PM on May 29, 2000

Seriously, six days is usually a good rule of thumb. And remember, sometimes with high email volumes, messages get lost in the shuffle. if something is that important, leave a phone message. There are times when I don't expect a reply to an email, and am almost suprised in getting one.

I still have messages from months ago that I just answered yesterday. forgive me father for I have sinned, it's been 3 months since I replied to non-critial email.
posted by eljuanbobo at 4:45 PM on May 29, 2000

Of course you still rock, Baylink!
I notice the usual culprits aren't here today...I haven't busted your chops in three whole let me make this an "official" Baylink thread:

Shouldn't this be in in MetaTalk?

posted by EricBrooksDotCom at 4:50 PM on May 29, 2000

PS: Matt? Next time you see Lance Arthur, can you remind him about that fan mail I sent him 3 years ago?
posted by EricBrooksDotCom at 4:52 PM on May 29, 2000

I'm horrible with mail, but that's because I don't go online for days at a time (look at my blog for confirmation on that) and sometimes it takes me a very long time to think about what I want to write. My friends have become used to waiting 2 or 3 months for mail to be answered. It took me that long to write the paper variety before I started using email.

And, yes, I realize some of you have written me things due to posts here. I will answer them in the next few days. I thought I had sent some, but when I was digging linkmail out of the drafts folder, I noticed it stuck in there and it wasn't finished yet. Oops.

Please don't use me as the "good" example here. :o)
posted by Electric Elf at 7:07 PM on May 29, 2000

Help me understand something here.

It's not okay to make negative comments about people's sites.

But it is okay to talk about who is good and bad at returning email.

It's wrong to say bad things about people's work, but it's okay to discuss their politeness or rudeness as correspondents.

Somehow that's not treating our fellow web authors like celebrities whose every quirk needs to be dissected in public.

10 posts on war veterans. 30 posts on the email habits of the rich and famous. It's good to see we have our priorities straight in this community.

(To be fair, this thread did not start out to be "let's name names" but it sure turned into that, didn't it?)
posted by Zeldman at 7:15 PM on May 29, 2000

Zeldman: come on....This discussion is purely jovial and is not meant to be a mud-slinging session. I think each and every web author can handle a little harmless teasing of their email habits, whether good or bad. We don't need to go down this road.

Hell, I don't claim to be the best with email, or even remotely good, but I'd feel honoured if my readers would harrass me about returning their mail. To me, that means they value my contact. And that is a Good Thing, isn't it? Of course it is.
posted by Succa at 7:37 PM on May 29, 2000

Thank you, Zeldman. I mentally tested my answer against all that I read and two days or sooner seems reasonable. But I have a small volume now, so it's usually the same day. Meanwhile, onto priorities. Put on the (classic) Country Joe and the Fish song..."and it's one, two, three I don't give a damn, next stop is Viet Nam..." ;)
posted by goodhelp at 7:42 PM on May 29, 2000

Thank you Jeffrey, I agree... that sums the memorial day posts up well indeed.

Slightly off topic. But, you know what I don't reply to? The terrible joke that was just as terrible before it went through 3.7 million people and made it to me. That junk is usually from friends and relatives... who get pissed when I don't reply! Sheesh, can't win with AOL'ers.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 11:35 PM on May 29, 2000

"The only way to win is not to play."

Rough weekend, Jeff?
posted by baylink at 7:17 AM on May 30, 2000

Do you know that this thread scored 580% on the BS analyzer?

Just thought I'd point that out.
posted by mkn at 2:29 PM on May 30, 2000

Oh! goody, one of my favourite topics (JK). I don't think that it can ever be too late to reply unless of course there is some sort of time related aspect related to the email.

If it's easy, I sometimes write a quick reply but I would rather file it so that I can write a "considered" response. Unfortunately, this can mean that they can compost for awhile.

If I had to fly across the country, I would regularly get all my email responded to. There's nothing like a five hour flight to give you ample opportunity to clear an inbox or "must be responded to" folder.
posted by heather at 3:07 PM on May 30, 2000

If it's worth a reply, it'll get a reply. So put the onus on yourself, not the recipient, and make it worth a reply.
posted by holgate at 4:14 PM on May 30, 2000

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