RIP Returning 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. Suddenly, email offered 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. By then I was doing more text messaging, but even then, people defaulted to email. One person who didn’t was Bruno, a mid-level manager in Silicon Valley I met in 2006. 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 change that. I’d vote for everyone to cut and paste the eFree signature below into your email signature. By adding it, you’re communicating your commitment to these principles. You’re letting the recipient know how to communicate with you. You’re breaking free from the shackles of email.

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

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.

We can ask the technology to be a bully, or we can take back the inbox by not only agreeing to use email etiquette, but broadcasting a reminder of how to do it.

Let us know how it works for you.