I’ll Get Back to You When I Get Back To You

The New York Times with a piece on how smartphones have morphed from luxury to necessity, which includes this following observation regarding responding when people e-mail or text you:

“The social norm is that you should respond within a couple of hours, if not immediately,” said David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “If you don’t, it is assumed you are out to lunch mentally, out of it socially, or don’t like the person who sent the e-mail.”

All together, now: Bullshit.

First: If you are the sort of person who believes that all your e-mails/texts must be responded to instantaneously or sooner, you may be a self-absorbed twit. Please entertain the idea that your responder may have a life of his or her own, with priorities which may not conform to yours. Chimpanzees, dogs and certain species of squid have all developed a theory of mind — you can too, if you try. We’re all rooting for you out here.

Second: If you’re the sort of person who believes that all e-mails/texts must be responded to instantaneously or sooner, that probably means you’re ignoring something important right in front of you, like the other person at the table, or traffic on the freeway, or a large dog about to savage you because you’re carelessly walking on his lawn. For your own safety and the courtesy of others, please do pay attention to the real world. Just because an e-mail or text wants your attention doesn’t mean you’re obliged to give it.

Third: Can we all agree that we don’t want to live in a world where we are obliged to respond to e-mails/text in an unrealistically short period of time, lest we be thought an enormous douchenozzle? I think trying to respond to your e-mails/texts over a course of a day or even two is perfectly reasonable, coupled with the understanding that, in fact, not every e-mail/text requires a response, so you might not get one. If you really need an immediate response, you can ask for one in the e-mail/text — again, with the understanding that a) abusing the “please respond asap” privilege dumps you into the “self-absorbed twit” category, and b) that person may still not respond immediately.

Basically, if we all agree that we can act like people who don’t have to be ZOMG the centaar of Teh Univarse!!!one!! for every other person and thing, things will be a lot more pleasant overall.

Mind you, even if we can’t all agree with this, I’m still going to answer my e-mail/texts on my own sweet schedule, not anyone else’s. Yes, I have a smartphone. And yes, I do in fact answer e-mails and texts with it; it’s fun to do so. But the main reason I have the phone is so that if my car flips and I’m pinned under two tons of Honda steel, I can call for help. I may or may not answer texts/e-mails any sooner because I have the phone. Not answering immediately does not mean I don’t like you; it means I have my own life and I’m busy with it. If you can’t manage to grasp that basic and obvious fact, that goes into the bin marked “your problems,” not mine.

Note that this formulation does not apply if you are my wife. If you are my wife, your e-mails and texts are returned immediately. Because I totally love you, babe. Everyone else: Eh. I think this is a fair set of priorities, personally.

88 Comments on “I’ll Get Back to You When I Get Back To You”

  1. I return emails *at work* within an hour or two, or at least within 24 hours if I’m REALLY busy doing something else which NEEDS COMPLETING RIGHT NOW.

    Personal email? I try to get to it every day, but sometimes it takes longer. I can’t access web-based mail at work. I work for a financial institution, and they want us to, you know, do actual WORK while we’re in the office.

    If someone REALLY needs to contact me, and it’s REALLY important, they call.

  2. Hey – I’m at lunch right now, so I don’t *have* to be working. (just in case you were wondering about that whole working at work thing right now…)

  3. The idea of instant response to e-mail completely undermines exactly what I use e-mail for: to take my own damn sweet time in replying.

    Which I will continue to do, no matter what Michigan’s top psychologists may say.

  4. >the centaar of Teh Univarse!!!one!!

    Initially parsed as the centaur of Teh Univ arse!!!one!!.
    I… need… coffee.

  5. The “social norm” varies from area to area, and demographic to demographic; even then, it’s in a constant state of flux, as the technologies involved are still very new.

    There was a time when the “social norm” was that you answered your phone when it rang, because it would have been important. That changed — the technology got cheaper, got abused, and new technologies came along which allowed (and even encouraged) different behaviours — answering machines, caller ID, call screening, and so forth.

    The “social norm” for cellphone behaviour 10 years ago was quite different from what it is today; I don’t think anyone can reliably predict what it’ll be 10 years from now.

  6. I’m pretty good about responding quickly, but… I don’t feel obligated to.

    One of the things I do is I’m secretary of the school system’s band boosters, which means I take notes at the meetings and generally send out reminder e-mails to parents whose kids are totally bad at bringing home flyers and handouts from the band directors or otherwise communicating with their parents. Some parent recently said, “You really should mark those as urgent so I know to read them.”

    I ignored that, although what I wanted to say was: In what universe do you live in that an e-mail reminding parents of next week’s band concert that you’re already supposed to know about constitutes something urgent?

    Urgent for me, and I’ll decide that for myself, thank you very much, means things like: a publisher has a problem with a manuscript and wants it dealt with soon otherwise they’ll hold up my check until it’s dealt with. Otherwise… get a life, I’m busy.

  7. My former employer expected us to acknowledge every email we got instantly, THEN go do what the client asked us to do in the first place. Which made no sense at all.

    If a client needed a specific piece of information, it made a whole lot more sense to get the information and include it in the reply. Unless it was something we really had to research or send someone out to inspect, then we’d tell them that with a “we’ll get back to you” kind of reply. Matter of fact, many of the clients wanted us to respond that way and would regularly send notes to us telling us they only needed the info, not two messages.

    Never did break him of that habit.

  8. I vastly prefer communicating via e-mail precisely for this reason, and will actually avoid doing business with someone who insists on phone or in-person contact. If someone calls me, I feel obligated to answer right away, or otherwise make decisions on something in a short time period, and I’m just not comfortable with that.

    In text, I can make considered decisions, with a full statement, and I have a permanent record of the conversation. There’s way too much crosstalk on the phone, and people mis-hear things or forget what was said.

    Voice is useful when something really is urgent and needs immediate attention, or if you want a more-intimate connection with someone, or to just chit-chat. But as a tool for non-immediate, non-intimate conversations, it sucks.

  9. I don’t know what the hell that guy was talking about. Has anyone here ever met anyone who actually thinks emails should be responded to immediately?

    Where did that come from? He just woke up one day and said, you know I’d like to be relevant to the world so i’ll make up some nonsense.

    He’s either a guy who doesn’t understand the differences between a phone, im and email OR he once sent an email to his idol and got no response.

    Maybe if he said emails are read immediately. When I had CrackLook running I sometimes found myself checking my email every four seconds.

  10. Hah…so those who expect instant answers are Twits? Do they Twitter? Are they then twitter-ers, or Twit-ers ? Millions of disenfranchised unwashed verbophiles need to know….

  11. Actually, in the US, it was policy at my big 4 employer that e-mails should be answered within the work day, or within 24 hours if that was not possible. At my NGO employer, 24 hours (obviously with lee-way for vacations, holidays, weekend) was required. This is not true in Europe, and it is quite frustrating to co-workers from the UK, where it is also common. As for personal e-mail, I answer that when I choose to.

  12. I don’t answer the phone just because it rings either. I have it for my convenience, not the caller’s. Voice mail falls into the same category as email (and I don’t get text messages on my phone, I had VZW disable it when they refused to stop charging me to receive spam).

  13. If I don’t get a response to an email within a few days, I start to wonder. The whole point of asynchronous communication is that you respond at your convenience. That (along with a paper trail) is why I prefer email or IM to phone.

  14. One thing I like about e-mail is that it will sit there patiently until I get home or get unbusy. Even though I am retired and have lots of free time, I still am not going to sit in front of my computer all day just to see if I get an e-mail that “must be answered immediately.”

    And if some self-important twit decided that means I don’t like him/her, s/he is probably correct.

  15. Thank you for speaking out on behalf of the rest of humanity who answer emails and text when it is on our schedule and not the sender of the original email or text.

    My emails are answered when I am on the computer and depending on the priority list when they get answered. But I am not on my computer 24/7 (thank God) My cheap ass pre-paid phone can do text, but to be honest, it is easier to call and leave a voice mail. Trying to type in something basic as “ok” takes me longer.

  16. I remember when email was relatively new, and folks who hadn’t returned phone calls for, like, YEARS, were checking and responding to their email a couple times a day because it was still a novelty. I think we are at the beginning of the end of that stage for texting; pretty soon it’ll just be another stack of messages we have to get to… soon…

  17. David E. Meyer can bite my fat and busy ass. I will even walk that fat and busy ass up US-23 to personally deliver it for biting.

    I have three jobs, two of which require A FUCKING LOT of e-mail attention. Those get dibs on my e-mailing time. Then come my spouse, kids, and BFF. If any of those four e-mail/IM/text/call, I will drop what I’m doing and answer, because they are important to me.

    Everyone else can sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, and wait til I get to them. I don’t care HOW you’re trying to reach me – if you’re not one of my employers (or in the case of one of them, my employer’s users in need of tech support), my spouse, either of my kids or my BFF? You don’t matter, and your e-mail/text/IM/voice mail will sit for a month if it takes me that long to work my way to you. And if you whine about it? I’ll ignore you altogether, just out of spite.

  18. “How long does it take for squid to answer e-mail?”

    Squids don’t use email. As far as they’re concerned, all real communication requires ink.

  19. Yay for saying the common sense version of cell phone/email/phone message use! I don’t even answer the phone at home OR the door unless I feel like talking to that person. And I am not obliged to do so. Who says we have to be social because someone else wants to be?

  20. When someone accuses me of not doing what they want me to do because I don’t like them, I make a point of agreeing. Because, at that point, it’s true.

  21. Yeah, that’s ridiculous. My personal rules of thumb are within 24 hours if possible for business email, within a few days for personal email, and within a few hours for texts if convenient. Phone calls are answered when they arrive if I’m not actively engaged in something; otherwise the voicemails devolve to email rules. Nothing at all gets answered after 9pm unless it’s a high priority, or I’m so completely unoccupied I have nothing better to do. The only exception is that phone calls after midnight are assumed to be emergencies and answered immediately; people who abuse this are quietly moved to the ignore-forever box.

  22. “If you are my wife, your e-mails and texts are returned immediately. Because I totally love you, babe. Everyone else: Eh. I think this is a fair set of priorities, personally.”

    It matches my own priorities perfectly (except I mean MY wife, not YOURS) so it MUST be correct. Good on you!

  23. My email works for me; I do not work for my email, nor am I so ensorcelled by it that I’d want to drag it around everywhere I went. For me, email is just a faster and more convenient form of snail-mail and I’ll answer it just like I answer the dead-tree variety thank you very much.

    I turned down a job offer, years ago, because it’d have required me to shackle myself to a pager and truckle to its (and my boss-in-potentia’s) whims at a moment’s notice. Sorry, but that’s giving up too much in my opinion; my life isn’t just filler content between electronic summonses.

    — Steve

  24. Well said! Unless it’s blatantly a matter of urgency – and it so very rarely is – I answer when I have time and inclination, and not before. I expect others to do likewise. There’s enough stress related illness in the world already, without artificially creating more!

  25. So if Prof. Meyer does not respond in a timely manner to an email, are his statements quoted in the article bogus?

  26. Maggie@19: You do know that I have your number Missy, and it is very tempting start calling you during the day just to say ‘Hi!’ now, right? Especially if I can get an amusing post from you about it. I know how much you’d love to hear about both of my sisters in law’s ongoing divorces.

  27. I have, on several occasions, gotten e-mails that said “I’m assuming you didn’t get my email from a couple of days ago because you haven’t replied so I’m sending it again.” They made me want to break something.

    Grrrr, and Amen.

  28. Jamie@29: My voice mail is sooooooo boring. I think you’d give up after a couple days of my boring outgoing message.

    Also, I have a “silent” ringtone. Annoying callers get that one, so I never know that they’ve called til I get around to looking at my phone.

    Three of my sisters in-law have that ringtone. They complain about always getting my voicemail.

  29. Hell, I run a business (SubPress) that is very email intensive — I received 200-250 a day that require some sort of response, thought, or action — and I’m pretty good at keeping up. My inbox regularly has fewer than 20 items in it when I quit for the day.

    The fun part is when someone emails me every hour, not realizing that we have a very small staff, or that their question might require my business partner to research it in our accounting program.

    If you email me *that* frequently, I will defer answering your email for at least a day.


  30. The nice thing about email is that it’s asynchronous. I have a number of friends whose waking hours seldom to never overlap mine; they send an email on their schedule, and I answer it on mine. If there’s a deadline for something or other, we deal with it case-by-case.

    Text messages have a level of immediacy between phone and email, in my view. And the exact level of immediacy depends on the relationship between the people, and the habits they’ve developed in their communication. When I text some people, if they don’t respond within a few minutes they’re either asleep or in a movie etc.; others, if they respond at all it’s usually the next day.

    And we all get to decide how many people, and which ones, we want to put in the Urgent Response List. For John, the list consists of one person: his wife. Some may have everyone in that list (they will be basket cases before long). I have a few people in mine, and they’re all people who may very well need to contact me with real urgency. But even for those people, I don’t answer every message immediately. A message that comments on the weather doesn’t need an immediate response.

  31. I’ve had some one try to tell me that it was rude that I didn’t respond to their e-mail right away.

    I told them that it was rude for them to assume they had any say in how I ran my personal life.

    I think that there are a certain group of people who see only the capability of the technology and don’t get how that then is applied to people or society as a whole. Yes, me having a cell phone allows other people to call me and have a pretty good chance of reaching me as opposed to if I only had a land line but that doesn’t mean that I’m anymore required to answer said phone simply because it’s implied I have more opportunity to do so. Same thing with e-mail; yes, I may be aware of your e-mail instantly, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop what I’m doing, which may be very important, to answer it.

  32. Thank you for that. To expect someone to respond to emails within two hours is to essentially regard email as a leash. Good puppy. Roll over and write your email. Not me. I’m running loose in the backyard. I’ll respond when I darn well feel like it.

  33. I have a pager and am oncall 24×7 at some point in the month every month. One time at work I was oncall 24×7 for four months in a row.

    And people wonder why I’m so patient when sending email and am okay with replies coming in days, if not weeks, later.

  34. Good thing you threw in the disclaimer at the bottom. The whole time I was reading this I hearing the little voice in the back of my head telling me that I do that with my boyfriend all the time. Significant others don’t apply to this rule! yay! :)

    What annoys me the most at work is when co-workers email you, and if you don’t reply within 4 hours, 6 hours, 8 hours… they send you one follow-up email, then another, then a phone call… My work doesn’t revolve around one person/place/thing!

    But with personal emails, ok, a day or so… more than a week… I think the person is rude if they are “close” to you.

  35. Obviously the professor quoted has tenure, or they’d be laughing his ass off the community college. (Then he becomes my problem for the next two years. Why I’m taking Psychology as a 45-year-old junior and not a 43-year-old frosh.)

    Not too long ago, I heard a whining commentary on NPR (They’re good for that, aren’t they? Whining: It’s not just for conservative pundits anymore!) that Internet access on airplanes were infringing on the commentator’s privacy. He then addressed the argument “Well, turn off your phone, then, dammit!”

    “But then I’ll be seen as out-of-touch, a luddite, or just antisocial.”

    It’s one of those rare moments I start pounding the steering wheel screaming “YOU ARE AN IDIOT DOUCHEBAG!” This, of course, makes me look like an idiot douchebag, but it just makes me want to crack the guy across the mouth and go, “You deserve every bad thing that ever happens to you, you insecure wuss.”

    Yes, I’m in an abusive mood today. Now where’s Ann Coulter. I got a new hurley from Ken Bruen I want to use on her.

  36. Email is for things too big to cram into an instant message, or messages that need to be preserved for a time. Instant messages are for relatively quick responses, or relatively quick questions. Phone calls and voice mail are for those who have only my phone number.

    Once upon a time — especially once voice mail and/or answering machines were common, it wasn’t even expected that you’d automatically answer the phone if you were there…

  37. For most information workers, you are expected to manage your work queue very effectively. This means responding to stuff pretty much instantly. This can be hectic, and does require good management, but it can be very effective.

    You are lucky enough not to have to do this.

    That you don’t like this is fair enough, but it doesn’t mean it’s immoral ;)

  38. I have at least one friendship that has been maintained in its current form for over a decade because we *don’t* answer each other’s e-mails right away. We tried that, clear back in ’95 (because I’ve had this friendship for nearly *two* decades now, and never mind the e-mail). It didn’t work. We don’t have a friendship of a dozen one-liners a day, we have a friendship of more substantial letters every couple of weeks or months, where we’re writing about things we’ve thought about for more than five seconds.

  39. Like Xopher, I have email correspondents in many parts of the world, so I don’t expect immediate replies from someone who is probably asleep when I’m pounding on the keyboard. Likewise, I don’t necessarily give them immediate replies.

    And until there’s a reasonable software app that helps to prioritize incoming communications*, expect me to do my own prioritization (read “triage”, because some will be allowed to die).

    * I know how it should work; I’m too lazy to spend several months building it just for my own use.

  40. Jeez. I build, maintain and monitor email and chat servers for a living and even I don’t answer mail too quickly. Folks will think I’m slacking off if I do.

  41. Meh. Depends on the context. It’s work email about a top priority project with near term deliverables? People had better reply in a timely fashion. Casual email from a friend saying “hey, what’s up…”? A day or two or even more probably works, depending on the people involved. I reply very quickly usually because I tend to be online most of my waking hours unless I’m out with friends – but that doesn’t *oblige* me to reply swiftly. It just means that I usually do.

    There’s not a one size fits all answer for this – to pretend that there is is naive and the 2 hour thing makes me laugh. Like all communication, it’s all about the people and the situation. The only time a lack of a prompt reply bothers me is when I’ve emailed someone asking a work question and they take days and days (and I know they’re around).

    Now, at some point a lack of a reply is either rude or unprofessional assuming the person involved is someone with whom you have a relationship (personal or professional). However, if I emailed someone like Scalzi and didn’t hear back… /shrug. I wouldn’t expect to hear back from people like John who probably get tons of emails from people who they don’t really know.

  42. I used to have a boss who ordered me to respond to every email she sent me immediately. Since I was in the military and she was a ranking officer, her order had the force of law.

    So I signed her email address up for every fucking spambot I could find, I submitted her email address to every “email me the information packet!” and every “Tell my more about Jesus as my Savior” email list I could find online. I went to Barnes and Nobles and filled out every one of the those little cards in the magazine rack on every subject from Apples to Zenon using her email address.

    For additional fun, when she was out of the office, I routinely typed her password into her office computer three times incorrectly, causing the security software to lock her out. Then she’d have to call the IT trouble desk to get it reset. Two sometimes three times a day. They hated her and delayed as long as possible before resetting her password, then they’d make the new password ten random digits long and impossible to type or remember. Did I mention they were friends of mine? No?

    Bitch wanted to be the center of the universe? Roger dodger. Every morning her email queue was literally tens of thousands of items long – and the system kept generating hundreds of messages informing her that her inbox was over capacity. I made sure to respond to her email immediately as ordered, then followed up with a visit to her office or a phone call to ask about the response, which she couldn’t find in the shitstorm of her email queue.

    The problem eventually solved itself when she became spectacularly unglued and was reassigned to a “lower stress” position.

  43. Work related e-mails IMHO should generally be responded to within 24 hours, or by the end of the next business day at the very least.

    Personal e-mails I’ll generally respond to imeadiately once I’ve read them. There is, however, a good chance that they have sat in my mailbox for 2-3 days before I get around to looking at it.

    I someone does not respond within 2-3 days, I presume that the e-mail never got there. This is not an unreasonabe assumption; I have messages (both to and from) dissapear all the time.

    Additionally, I work from the assumption that no one ever checks their answering machine or voice mail, if it’s important that’s what e-mail is for.

  44. Eh. Even if Professor Meyer is being quoted with all necessary context, which I very much doubt, I don’t think his intent was to make a normative judgment. I think he was quite accurately saying that among a certain, growing population, expectations of responsiveness are increasing. And yet he still qualifies with “within a couple of hours,” which, looking at the comments here, seems to be the norm for many people’s practices with respect to business email. He’s not telling anyone they should be responding faster, or that it’s “okay” to get angry if you don’t get an instantaneous response. He’s just saying that some people believe these things, and their numbers are growing. Which, from the anecdotal evidence here, sounds to be true.

    As for whether this is a bad thing, at least in the business context, it’s a lot easier to get up in arms about it when your career isn’t service-oriented and therefore very much dependent upon remaining in the good graces of the people who email you regularly. With no disrespect meant to novelists (which category includes my wife), there’s not much lost if they take their time with correspondence in general, because the quality of their work product remains the same. (Some novelists have deliberately built career-enhancing reputations (and websites) around being a bit standoffish and curmudgeonly.) But for those of us for whom the speed of response is the work product, or at least a significant part of it, a culture of connectivity just helps us do our jobs better.

    Unreasonable expectations are still unreasonable, of course, but that’s a subjective judgment. When you’re paid to care about the things your clients care about, you have to have decided already that you can muster up the proper enthusiasm. If you can’t, you can expect they’ll find someone who can. Which isn’t always a bad thing; the great part of contractual work is that you can fire your bosses.

  45. I feel even more like a freak than normal, now…

    I will respond to email that comes to my work account the instant I get it. If I’m there. If I’m not at my desk, I get it on my Blackberry, and I respond to it instantly as well.

    Part of the reason for that is that I’m trying to train everyone I know and work with that calling me results in you getting my voice mail. And voice mails take at least a day to return. While email is immediately dealt with, even if it’s just to say “I’ve added your request to the queue.”

    Eventually, everyone will have learned that the right way to get a fast response from me is to email me, and I’ll be able to turn the phone off completely.

  46. I do answer e-mail almost immediately, assuming that (a) I’m at the computer*, (b) I have an intelligent response to make and (c) I’m not busy with other things.

    *I’m also one of the few people in the US, apparently, who choses not to own a mobile phone of any kind, smart or otherwise.

    I blog, I journal, I still read a couple of Usenet groups and I even have a FaceBook account, used mostly to keep up with family and college friends. I don’t text, Tweet or IM – short-form chatter irritates me.

    The thing is, these are all specific choices based on personal preferences. I don’t disdain people who make other choices. I love living in the future, where we have all these nifty tools for keeping in touch – but I also reserve the right to be out of touch whenever I feel like it.

  47. Reading through the article, it seems that it’s saying that there’s a social norm in some sectors. There are certain people I will always answer the phone for — my girlfriend, my kids, my ex (because it might be about the kids). (It’s not paid for by work, so I don’t have to answer it when work calls). Other people…ehh. It’ll be when I get to it, just as I expect other people to get back to me when they can. If it’s particularly urgent, I’ll call first and then sent a followup email explaining the urgency. (Urgency is defined as “is anyone bleeding?”)

    But as far as getting back instantly, all the time? The last paragraph says With the smartphone, he said, the stimuli are information feeds. “It can be powerfully reinforcing behavior,” he said. “But the key is to make sure this technology helps you carry out the tasks of daily life instead of interfering with them. It’s about balance and managing things.”

    Which is, I think, reasonable.

  48. What DPSquared said. I have no idea why they’re even quoting Dave Meyer. He is a cognitive/experimental psychologist, mostly a reaction time guy. I don’t see anywhere that he’s advocating that quick emails should be be the case, only that some people expect it.

    So don’t get mad at Dave, get mad at idiots who call you 10 minutes after they send an email, asking if you’ve read their email yet.

  49. Does anyone remember the days of dial phones, no pagers, no cells, no smart phones? The days where one called in to check for messages! I check out for days at a time for my sanity & read a book. We need to turn off our PDA’s as in Zoe’s Tale! This has become an age of instant communication with expected instant response. Get a life!

  50. This is a training issue. If you train people that you will respond immediately, they expect it of you. I often delay answering on just this principle.

  51. You have a cell phone so you can call for help when trapped under the car. You have a smart phone so you can catch up on your email while trapped under the car.


  52. hmmm, I consider NOT answering emails after you read them to be uncivilized. I’m in academia, and I tell students I’ll NEVER answer the phone if they call, but can get back to them very quickly thru email. I treat friends mostly the same way in regards to email. On the third hand, I consider smartphones and cell phones in general to be the height of uncivilzed behavior and only own a cell phone for emergencies. I suspect most people in academia feel more or less the same about email. Twitter? Text messaging? corporal punishment isn’t ALL BAD. (ask your local k-12 or college teacher about texting…..)

  53. I get people telling me they’ve left a message on my cell phone. Um, I don’t use voicemail on my cell — and never told anyone I do. Hell, the cell is off nearly all the time. Your voicemail does not constitute my emergency.

    Dr. Phil

  54. This goes along with the “I’m talking you but you’re not as important as my cell phone vibrating in my pants so I have to take the call” attitude.

    I mean why do these people have voice mail?

    How rude.

  55. Sorry JS…but your OP is spoken like a man who is self-employed. For the rest of us, I think rick @ 44 has it about right.

  56. LB:

    Oh, I don’t disagree with Rick; I answer e-mails on business matters in a timely fashion myself. It’s quite sensible to quickly answer the e-mails/texts that should be quickly answered. But not every e-mail/text rates, and I reserve the right to judge for myself which do.

  57. I’ve been subject to this expectation. I went from a very low-tech undergrad situation (St. John’s College, where I basically existed in the 16th century and would check e-mail about once a month) to grad school at MIT, where I quickly had to learn to get on e-mail multiple times a day.

    I clearly remember the moment I realized what the expectation was. I had a 3-hour afternoon class, and, while I was in it, a professor from a different class sent out an e-mail asking to schedule conferences. By the time I got out of my afternoon class, everyone had scheduled their conference except me, and I had about 3 e-mails asking if I was OK.

    The expectation may be unreasonable, but I don’t think the psychologist is describing it incorrectly, and I don’t think he’s trying to personally impose it or suggest that it’s somehow morally correct.

  58. I know this hasn’t been discussed. I work for a big chemical company in a lab. We work with some really toxic chemicals and always have barrier gloves, goggles, lab coats, etc on. I have trained my family and friends that I won’t at any cost answer my phone when I’m in the lab. Hell, I won’t even stick my hands in my pockets. Safety first!

  59. It is not uncommon for me to get on the order of 50 or more work related emails a day. If I responded to those all instantly, or even within a few hours, I’d thrash so much I’d get nothing done.

  60. Jim Wright @ 45: You’re evil. I like you!

    As for smartphones/iPhones/GooglePhones/etc., I don’t own one and I’m going to avoid buying one as long as practically possible. Those things are a classic example of conveniences morphing into inconveniences; people don’t get upset with me for not returning their calls “toots sweet” because they know I don’t have a cell, and I’m likely (as far as they know) away from the house where I won’t get a landline message until it’s too late to immediately return it. (*sigh of relief*)

  61. I think I’m becoming a technocurmudgeon. You know what? Most people don’t send me stuff say, on a weeknight, that is THAT urgent if I didn’t get to it by the time I got home from being out of net range at 10 p.m. And nobody sends me anything urgent on weekends, so the most I might do is glance at the list of e-mails and read them Monday morning.

    I kind of want a smartphone and kind of don’t. I like gadgetry, but Internet + small screen is frustrating, ESPECIALLY if I am apparently now expected to always be on my e-mail. Bugger that, can’t I take a break? And not e-mail while on the toilet?

  62. I like being able to check my personal email via my cellphone (I absolutely refuse to set it up for work mail). I hate getting phonecalls and never remember to check my voicemail, and I absolutely detest getting text messages — although this is largely because of the outrage of getting charged for them even though my cellphone plan includes unlimited Web and email access. I deeply resent that.

    And Jim Wright, I hope your boss was much, much worse than simply demanding instant replies to email (which I agree is highly annoying). I won’t deny that the things you did are funny, but they also show a degree of malice that I had not expected from reading your other comments here.

  63. Jim Wright… I bow to your superior deviosity…

    Scalzi @61: Yep we all have to set our own rules. Presumably we all have a decent feel for how our choices are perceived by our correspondents but I imagine sometimes we’re probably wrong. I’ll survive though.

    I’m somewhat amused by the 2 hour expectation though… I’ve had days where I’m in meetings for longer than that.

  64. When I text some people, if they don’t respond within a few minutes they’re either asleep or in a movie etc.; others, if they respond at all it’s usually the next day.

    This is my experience as well; I have a bunch of friends who are often online and who leave themselves idle in social networking communities when they’re off doing other things. Text messages / instant communications / etc which are unresponded to mean they’re off doing something with their life … and whatever I wanted can wait. :)

  65. You sent an email? No, I don’t see it. When did you send it? Hmm, lemme check something … oh, there it is, in the junk mail folder …

  66. John writes:

    But the main reason I have the phone is so that if my car flips and I’m pinned under two tons of Honda steel, I can call for help.

    Wow, is it very common or standard that whenever a Honda flips, another pair of Hondas immediately dogpile on top of it to get enough combined mass for the police and passers-by to take the incident seriously?

  67. Silly me, I always thought the whole point of email was that you could communicate with someone fairly quickly without interrupting them in what they were doing, the way a phone call would. Want to ask a friend a question, but (s)he’s at work, where (s)he can’t take personal calls? Send an email. Quite simple, really.

  68. My students have been known to send email at 2 a.m., then freak out because I didn’t respond until I got to the office the next morning. At 8 a.m. By which time, they have sent a *second* email message, asking if I got the first.

    My thought bubble: I’m 51. I need some sleep. Get over yourself.

  69. See, this is why I don’t even like the idea of cell phones (although I have one in case the car breaks down or something), much less multi-use phone/computer techonology…it has created a culture where one is expected to be available instantly at any time of the day or night.

    Which is completely ridiculous. Yeah, for business purposes, it is courteous (as well as good business) to return calls and e-mails in a timely manner. But even in business (and maybe I’m a Luddite in this), I still find it completely unreasonable that one be expected to be on call 24/7. This is called “not having a life”, and it is not healthy.

    Yeah, I know. We (here in the US, at least) live a culture where one is considered to be a slacker if one does not work at least 80 hours a week and put work before everything else, including family and sanity. I reiterate…this is not healthy, mentally, emotionally, or physically.

    In personal life, if you are so insecure that you need your friends to respond to your every utterance immediately…well, you have issues that would probably be best treated by a professional. Again…not healthy.

    Had to get that said. Now I’ll go back and read the other comments.

  70. Wow, eviljwinter, that’s uncanny. I heard exactly that commentary and had exactly that reaction, without the steering wheel pounding. Needs to be repeated:

    “Not too long ago, I heard a whining commentary on NPR (They’re good for that, aren’t they? Whining: It’s not just for conservative pundits anymore!) that Internet access on airplanes were infringing on the commentator’s privacy. He then addressed the argument “Well, turn off your phone, then, dammit!”

    “But then I’ll be seen as out-of-touch, a luddite, or just antisocial.”

    It’s one of those rare moments I start pounding the steering wheel screaming “YOU ARE AN IDIOT DOUCHEBAG!”

  71. Yes, I have a smartphone. And yes, I do in fact answer e-mails and texts with it; it’s fun to do so. But the main reason I have the phone is so that if my car flips and I’m pinned under two tons of Honda steel, I can call for help.

    johnscalzi: HELP IM TRAPPED UNDER MY HONDA. 3 hours ago

    johnscalzi: Still under the Honda. Here’s a picture of the view that I took with my smartphone. 3 hours ago

    johnscalzi: Athena and Krissie aren’t in the Honda, they’re at home. But thanks for everyone’s concern. 3 hours ago

    johnscalzi: Actually, it’s not so bad under here. I’ve managed to get a bit of work done. Fortunately I had some galleys in the passenger seat, and they’ve fallen within reach. 2 hours ago

    johnscalzi: I’m having to make corrections by holding the pen in my teeth, though, which is tricky. 2 hours ago

    johnscalzi: Please, no more jokes about putting bacon on the Honda. It’s not funny. 2 hours ago

    johnscalzi: Stand by for my next Big Idea post on car safety! 2 hours ago

  72. “If you are the sort of person who believes that all your e-mails/texts must be responded to instantaneously or sooner, you may be a self-absorbed twit.”

    Truer words have never been spoken. Thanks you.

  73. Hi John,

    Longtime reader, first time poster. Love the site, love your books.

    Re: above. As a tech professional who gets something on the order of 30 e-mails a day from actual human beings (as opposed to pseudo-spam and subscribed list udates) I can say that I usually deliberately delay responding to people even if I can right away. I just doesn’t pay to set unreasonable expectations. Close personal friends and family are the only people who get instant responses, even if it is just a quick, “bz.”

    One site suggestion: Please, consider darkening the text color. I find it too light, especially the blockquote text, to read easily. I don’t have particularly bad eyesight either (actually it’s terrible but corrected to 20-20).

    Thanks for all the great reading.

  74. @#45 Love your idea. I’m so stealing that if I ever have a boss that stupid.

    I’m sure cats have a theory of mind too, they just don’t care.

    BTW if your car flips and your trapped under it, good luck having enough room to text per my firefighter son.

  75. This is not new. 20 years ago I used to come home and find a series of calls on my answering machine starting with “This X, call me.” progressing to “It is an hour later, why haven’t you called back?” and ending, usually a few messages later with “You haven’t called back! You @#$%!”.
    And this from someone who knew that I would not be home most of the day.

    My wife gets email at work followed by a call from the sender to find out if she got it and to ask why she has not responded at once.

  76. Alex S. @ 77: Also relevant: “the people hold the power /
    arise and claim your freedom”


    “your tv and your radio
    seek to keep you in your slumber
    step out into the sunlight
    arise arise arise”

    <3 JBE SO MUCH

  77. Second: If you’re the sort of person who believes that all e-mails/texts must be responded to instantaneously or sooner, that probably means you’re ignoring something important right in front of you…

    Like me walking past your driveway while you’re trying to text and back out of said driveway at the same time, about an hour ago.

    Dude would have ran into me if I hadn’t smacked at his read window rather loudly. Apparently this scared the crap out of him, since he startled, cursed and fumbled his damned cellphone.

    He gave me dagger eyes as if I had suddenly materialized behind him for the sole purpose of spooking him and messing up his precious texting. Trust me, buddy, if I had mastered the art of teleportation, I’d have better places to be than behind your PT Cruiser.


  78. “You may be a self-absorbed twit…”

    Sounds like a nice meme derivative of “you might be a redneck.”

    “If you have a personal assistant, you may be a self-absorbed twit.”

    “If you send a broadcast email to your twitter followers, you may be a self-absorbed twit…”

    “If you are a member of congress, you may be a self-absorbed twit.”

    “If you host a radio show and your name is Stern or Limbaugh, you may be a self-absorbed twit.”

  79. Well said, John. Very well said. As someone else noted, the beauty of email is that it’s asynchronous. You don’t hvae to be around to receive it; it’ll be waiting for you when you get to it. So, Mr. Michigan Psychologist: if you need a response immediately, email should NOT be your communication method of choice.

    Frankly, w/ all the communications options available to us these days, I’m starting to get overwhelmed. It’s an introvert’s worst nightmare: FOR GOD’S SAKE, PEOPLE, leave me alone for one frakking hour! ;-)

    I actually tried, for a couple weeks, to take an entire 24-hour period of time away from all things electronic – no tv, cell phone, computer, etc… it was refreshing and nervewracking all at once. (Hey, maybe I should try that again!)

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