Jun 28

Linda Stone

Linda Stone

RIP: Returned Every Email

I fell in love with email in 1983. I was a computer-savvy educator and children’s librarian teaching teachers about the new technologies 
available to them. Email came into my life, offering immediate gratification: no stamp, no trip to the post office, no phone tag, no long messages. Questions were answered quickly. Personal exchanges often felt as intimate as a written letter or a phone call, but were immediate and more frequent.

Years later, in 1990, I was working at Apple, and I missed a weekend call to my mother. She chided me: “Your tombstone isn’t going to say ‘Returned every email, returned every call.’ It could say, ‘Loving daughter of…” My mother was thinking about my tombstone and I was thinking about email.

Then, between 2000-2002, when I was working for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, it wasn’t unusual for my inbox to have a thousand new emails a day. Everybody and their dog seemed to be on email. I filed, filtered, deleted, and delegated. And I called my mother on the weekends.

When I left Microsoft, my emails tapered off to 100-200 a day. In 2006, met Bruno, a mid-level manager in Silicon Valley. When I sent him an email, a message bounced back into my inbox:

“My email response time is 1-2 weeks. 

If you need immediate assistance, you can I.M. me between 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 pm PST or call me between 9:30 -11 a.m. PST.

For issues related to contracts, please contact…”

Bruno, GenY and twenty-something, named three communication tools: email, I.M., and the telephone. He spelled out his response habits. That got my attention.
Why don’t we all take a cue from Bruno? We could start a social movement. We can take back the inbox. I’ll call it eFree.

In the “signature” at the end of an email, people often include name, contact information, a quote, or a legal disclaimer. Let’s modify that. How about cutting and pasting the eFree signature below into your email signature? By adding it, you’re communicating your preferences, just like Bruno did. You’re letting the recipient know how to communicate with you.

1. Reply all is usually a bad idea. 

2. If you’re cc’d, there’s no need to reply.

3. A short, thoughtful email gets a quicker response. Long emails are read last.

4. If this issue cannot be resolved in 3 emails, consider scheduling a call or a meeting.

5. Thank you. Always lovely. Sometimes not necessary.

Are you ready to take back the inbox? Is there a funnier or more compelling way to say this? Radar readers have great suggestions, so thank you in advance!

(special thanks to Michael Tubach, an attorney with O’Melveny & Myers LLP, who helped craft the eFree principles)

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Comments: 10

  rick [06.28.08 12:11 PM]

His reply notification addresses how to communicate with him - not how the sender should communicate generally, but what will work if you need HIS attention. Yours seems more about general practices and etiquette.

The questions that immediately come to my mind reading yours are:

1)Why did you Send All if you don't want the chance of Reply All?
2) Why CC me if you don't want my input? (and note that, unless you filter CCs most clients don't make it apparent that you're CCed vs a direct addressee)
3) Yep. :)
4) Oh lord, a call/meeting.... now we have to find time on people's calendars... and keep them on track and not let them veer off. If this can't be resolved withing 3 emails... why not?
5) Thank you.

A lot of the CC action that's done via email could, it seems, be put into an internal blog. Setting up an email address that posts received mail to the blog would get rid of much the "I'm CCing you so you know what's happening" spam... er, email

  David Marriott [06.28.08 12:59 PM]

I read about this concept in Tim Ferris' "The Four Hour Work Week" -- he talks specifically about the problems with e-mail and the tremendous value of the auto-response that gives better communication options -- the "call me on my cell if it is urgent" generally filters out all the garbage e-mail, or at the very least, people realize that the response they need isn't really that urgent.

  linda [06.28.08 01:38 PM]

Thanks. I hope people keep commenting. I started using this signature today with very mixed results. Some people appreciate the clarity and some think it sounds rude and could be funnier.

Rick -- Send All is often used for email blasts. At home, for the neighborhood email blasts. In business, for certain types of announcements (true, more sophisticated email users rarely do this). When I send emails, I am often explicit at the beginning of an email -- do not reply all or please reply all (when I want my assistant included and I'm concerned someone might drop her off).

CC: is usually a courtesy. Most people seem to do this when they want others to be aware of something, but not necessarily involved.

The "more than 3 emails, let's meet" came up in a discussion about endless threads -- when, in many cases, a decision could be made with a quick call or face to face. I agree -- adding more meetings can be a drag.

David -- I've read about Tim's bounce back/cell #. If it works for you, super. I'm not so keen on putting my cell number in a bounce back.

Other ideas? Could this be clearer? funnier?

  Michael Moncur [06.28.08 09:51 PM]

I agree with Rick. Bruno's response was polite, personal, and informative about how specifically to communicate with him, and it gave people frustrated by email some alternatives.

Your "Efree" signature does none of these things, and it does seem rude and impersonal.

I say we all follow in Bruno's footsteps with a signature that reveals our individual email response time, IM availability, and so on. That's a much better idea.

  linda [06.29.08 05:41 AM]

Michael -- I'm inclined to agree with you. I've now been using the efree signature for a few days and I do think it comes across as rude and not quite right. Bruno's bounce back works better. Thanks for your comment.

I wrote this post after reading about Google Email Addict which, when installed, every so often blocks access to email to give the user an enforced rest. My reaction was -- ok, we've become self-described addicts and now we're asking technology to bully us. There have got to be more personal solutions......

  Brian Dunbar [06.29.08 06:10 AM]

we've become self-described addicts and now we're asking technology to bully us. There have got to be more personal solutions......

You can't solve a people issue with a technical fix. Or to paraphrase Will Rogers

Technology got us into this mess - why can't technology get us out of it?

A technical hack won't work unless a large set of people have the exact same problem (at least until we get AI or a Brain Pal). Until then the solution has got to be wetware - set expectations, stick with them.

Bruno's auto-reply is a grand idea - and I'll use it.

  Shriram Krishnamurthi [06.30.08 08:10 PM]

Some months ago I began my personal Slow Email
movement. That's worked better than any gadget or signature.
I check email headers periodically, so I can catch an urgent message,
but that's it.

I used to think of the phone as the instrument of the devil—why
should I be interrupted when you want?—but
after I began this I started to carry my cell phone around and leave
it on. That way, people really can catch me in a pinch.

It's worked wonders. I can go whole hours, even days, without reading
email. With a good threaded email reader, like Google Mail, my number
of threads is within an order-of-magnitude of the number of
messages (i.e., there's a lot of traffic on some threads),
which helps. My productivity has gone up so much my head hurts (i.e.,
I'm spending much more time thinking than composing vapid

The one device that has helped is affixing “NNTR”
(or “NN2R”) to my messages. It's saved me a large number
of needless “thanks” and “okay” replies.

  linda [06.30.08 08:51 PM]

Great suggestions! I spoke with Nathan Zeldes at Intel and he mentioned that they are adding a few features to email -- for example, for reply all -- the user has to select each person individually.

  Jez [07.02.08 03:07 AM]

First person to get my new signature.. My girlfriend..

She said, "?????? Did you write the below?..........It's good but very sarcastic."


  Beth Kanter [07.02.08 12:58 PM]

1.) Give a hoot, don't data pollute. Think before your click reply all.
2.) If you replying to edit my copy, let's take this to a wiki, please
3.) I put you on the cc:line as FYI no need to reply
4.) One word rapid replies are best done in IM. Are you my skype, google talk, or aim buddy list?
5.) If we've traded more than 3 emails, let's resolve this the old fashioned way - pick up the phone.
6.) No need to say thanks
7.) short and sweet gets answered before long winded ...

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