Email as a Double-Edged Communication Tool

I consider email as the most efficient communication tool for most work-related matters. But unfortunately, I feel that this efficiency is being eroded constantly in my life for a number of reasons that in principle have nothing to do with myself or with the very essence of email. When I started using email 16 years ago, most other users of email were more or less the so-called "early adopters", therefore also geeks. I did not have many people to email back then, but on the other hand, I almost always received an immediate response from many of them, and no less importantly, they all knew email etiquette and followed it. With the popularization of the Internet in the following years and the resulting widespread use of email among more and more people with less and less computer literacy, email has become a double-edged communication tool. I feel that it often causes more agony than good to me.

What makes email as a more and more frustrating communication tool is not the fact that more and more people fail to follow email etiquette but the fact that they also fail to follow etiquette in general which is common to other settings of communication. There was a time when I waged a Quixotic fight against violators of email etiquette, including using plain text format instead of HTML format, bottom-quoting instead of top-quoting, to name just a few examples. But now I find myself fighting against those who have little or no etiquette of communication in general. Among what I consider the most serious violations of etiquette are failing to apologize for breaking your promise, failing to acknowledge receipt of something you asked someone else to send you, whether verbally or physically, and ignoring someone else's sincere questions (such as "Will you come to the next meeting you asked me to invite you to?") and remaining silent. I wonder how many days average users of email can wait for replies to their questions by email. My limit is three work days unless the person from whom I am expecting a response is on the go and has no Internet access. According to my experience, most of those who do not reply to me within three work days never reply to me. There are even those who ignore my repeated simple requests for confirming something that concerns them rather than me. The destiny of their email addresses is deletion from my email address book. ;-) I have to confess that I have a hard time with those who have no email address, but I have a much harder time with those who do have at least one email address but do not use it at all.

As of this writing, nearly half of my genuine questions of the above-mentioned type seem to be ignored, and my impression is that the percentage of these ignored questions is increasing steadily. I also realize a rather strong correlation between lack of etiquette of communication and the cultural background of my interlocutors by email; those with, e.g., the Japanese, Russian or American cultural background use email as a communication tool far more efficiently that those with the Israeli cultural background. Communication is possible only if there are two people. If the person with whom you are trying to communicate remains silent, email communication is impossible though in face-to-face communication silence can sometimes tell you volumes.

The main technical reason for this failure I can think of is the failure to use the email inbox wisely. One of the best ways to ensure unwise use of your inbox is to check your email with the web interface instead of using a mailer. I have realized that there already exist a whole generation of people who have never heard of a mailer and believe totally erroneously that the web interface is the only gateway to their email. Again according to my experience, people who check email on the web respond far less frequently and far less promptly than those who use a mailer. As far as I am concerned, my mailer (Thunderbird) is even more important than my browser (Firefox). If you check your email on the web, it is much easier to bury many important messages into oblivion without answering them. Another unwise use of the email inbox is not to keep it clean. As a number of experts in "getting things done" recommend, I always see to it that my email inbox is empty by the time I go to bed at night. I classify incoming messages by their importance and handle them accordingly, i.e., by answering them immediately, putting still empty replies to them in the drafts folder, or simply deleting them after or sometimes even without reading them.