E-mail Etiquette

Matters of etiquette are always touchy matters, but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend regarding email filters. Such filters are becoming more aggressive, resulting in more and more real emails ending up in my junk folder.

So I suggest the following etiquette in light of such filters: if you get an email and don’t respond with some sort of acknowledgement, that’s rude.

The justification for this position is that some people are rude and just ignore emails. So how can you tell the difference? Well, if you acknowledge and are spam-filtered at the other end, at least you have an excuse which shows that you aren’t rude. If you don’t respond, you have no excuse at all. You’re just rude. And I have an even better argument, for those of you who know Ernie: he always responds, and it is hard to find a better rule than to do what Ernie would do.

Alternative viewpoints welcome and encouraged in the comments… 🙂 Maybe I’ll mollify my position as a result… But not about Ernie. Full stop.


E-mail Etiquette — 7 Comments

  1. Maybe your etiquette should be reformulated so as to avoid embarking infinite number of acknowledgments upon acknowledgments.

  2. I hope you will mollify your position on this.

    I think it’s rude not to shake someone’s hand whenever a hand is extended. (I’m not sure what to think about high-fives, but you’d think in this post-Seinfeldian era you wouldn’t have to worry about that.) I don’t think it’s rude not to respond to an email. If you respond to email, you’ve gone above and beyond. Not responding to email is not a snub.

    I don’t have internet at home. I can only answer email if I’m in my office or maybe at a place that offers free wi-fi. The nearest place for me to use free wi-fi is over a mile away from my house and their hours aren’t so good. By the time I can get on the web, I realize that it would take hours to respond to each of the emails that have piled up in the twelve to twenty four hours between internet sessions. In the typical semester I have nearly two hundred students and lots of them send emails on a regular basis. I guess it would be easier to keep up with email correspondence with students, fellow philosophers, friends, family members, etc… if I had internet at home, but can you really say that etiquette requires me to pay for internet service _and_ spend hours a day answering emails? That seems mighty excessive. On this view, etiquette is far more demanding than my students seem to think morality is. They should think morality is much more demanding than they do, but that’s another matter.

    If the overdemandingness objection doesn’t move you, how about the argument from the following principle:
    PHP: Etiquette cannot require you to suffer harms equivalent to or greater than the harms you’d suffer from pot smoking.

    According to the Pot-Harm-Principle, the demands of etiquette cannot require you to engage in actions whose negative effects on you are equivalent to or greater than the harms you’d be forced to endure from pot smoking. Here’s something like a proof. Etiquette cannot demand that you smoke pot because you’d be forced to suffer harms equivalent to smoking pot. That’s obvious, right? And, it cannot demand that you suffer greater harms like, say, smoking pot and listening to the Grateful Dead. That’s even more obvious (to those of us who appreciate that exposure to the music of the Grateful Dead is harmful.) Scientific research that must be good because I’ve seen it mentioned on CNN suggests that email can lower your IQ even more than pot can (here).

  3. Sometimes I get emails from students that I make very clear in the syllabus are not the sorts of things to email me about.

    Example One:
    Did I miss anything on today?

    Example Two:
    I don’t quite remember X. (Where is some bit of information that is a potential test topic and the test is the following day)

    If I tell a student that these are things that are not to be emailed about and that they should come see me during my office hours rather than rely on me to be their personal administrative assistant – then I don’t think it is rude to not reply to those emails. This seems especially clear if that rule is made explicit on the first day of class.

    There seems to be a good explanation for this. One might think that to rely on a professor via email to play the role of personal administrative assistant is rude.

    Perhaps your principle could be revised so it is as follows:

    (1) If Email E is rude (and it has been made clear to both parties that rude emails will not receive responses), then it is not rude to fail to respond to email E.

  4. Good points. Consider my position mollified to distinguish originating emails from acknowledgements, Daniel. And, Andrew, think of the implicit quantifier as suitably restricted…:-) I get the same emails from students, and haven’t yet arrived at a solution that doesn’t put them off forever… And Clayton, I *love* PHP! But CNN BS about IQ…? They should have read The Mismeasure of Man first… Finally, no *immediate* response to colleagues on professional matters (the implicit quantifier at work) was intended, so postponing for a day or two surely isn’t rude. And if PHP kicks in even given the suitably restricted quantifier, then I recant!

  5. I try to answer all my email. But I also get email that it would seem not to be rude not to answer. Blackboard allows my students to Spam the whole class (all 190 students plus me and 3 TAs) with “What did he (that’s supposed to be me, I think) say today?” I actually answer these, because as you say I don’t actually want to shut communication down for good. But I could see another person making a different choice and not being criticizable for making it, even without the advance warning that Andrew suggests.

    I guess I think any rule of etiquette that doesn’t take the content of the email and the context in which it is sent into account would just lead to more stress and less useful use of time, at least if people tried to follow it. (Last I checked rules of etiquette were not categorical imperatives so it isn’t obvious it would be followed even by all of us rational people.)

    And you know, that spam filter point cuts two ways. If you sent an email of the sort you’d think the person would want to answer, you should not be put off by the lack of response and instead try again. I’ve done that and mostly been right about the mail not getting through.

  6. Yes, Mark, exactly right about different rational choices in the student example. Happy to see as well that you count us all as rational!

    I’ve wondered about the filters. I’ve re-sent exactly the same message, and been told that it gets through one time but not the other. What’s the hidden variable here???

  7. Good question Jon. I’ve got my outgoing mail going out through Earthlink’s SMTP server even for my University account (because it means I can send email from anywhere using a virtual private network, even when I’m traveling, without a change of settings). Some servers don’t like it when the server is not the same as the email address of sender of the mail and filter the email. So if I’m worried an email has not gotten through I go to webmail and send again. Webmail will have the outgoing server and the email address originate in the same place. Or I switch to my earthlink-based home email address and try again.

    I don’t know why sending the same email twice in the same way would yield different results from a spam filter, though I’ve heard people say that sometimes servers check for live people by bouncing the first one on the theory that live people will try again. But for those cases you should get a bounce message.

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