Not Just “How to Email”, but “When to Email”

when to email

What is the best way to email? This is obviously a question that concerns us a great deal at Timyo—and we aren’t the only ones. Email has become a fact of our lives, and it seems like the only thing greater than its pervasiveness is the frustration people feel with the email status quo.

I’m always interested in other people’s thoughts on how to fix email, and we’ve shared a lot of them here.

Some I agree with.

Some I think are great ideas that I hope we soon make obsolete.

And some are, well…wrong.

How Not to Email

That last one is how I felt after reading James Hamblin‘s piece “How to Email?” at The Atlantic. Hamblin argues for a strict no-frills approach that does away with the niceties and formalities that email has inherited from letter-writing:

Greetings and closings are relics of the handwritten missive that persist only as matters of, ostensibly, formality. Foregoing them can seem curt or impolite. But it’s the opposite. Long, formal emails are impolite. […] Text messages and chat platforms like Gchat and Slack require no such formality, so why should it seem rude to forego it in email?”

I agree with Hamblin that Gchat and Slack are different from email; I disagree that this is a problem. At Timyo, we believe in taking what email is already good at and making it even better. We believe that email should be just one tool in your toolbox, and that this tool should be as useful as possible.

Messaging apps like Slack are great for impromptu, ongoing communication in a closed group of people. But a lot of our online communication doesn’t match that description.

Email is perfect when more formal or more substantive communication is required—writing an initial query to a new business contact or potential client, for example, or laying out a four-point-plan to your team on an upcoming project.

Formality is Fine

I agree with Hamblin that undesirable formality is bad, but the key word there is “undesirable”. There are plenty of times, online and in real life as well, when we appreciate a little formality.

Dealing with strangers is one clear example. “Formality” here doesn’t necessarily mean obscure etiquette and stuffy lingo: if I belly up to a fast food counter, I don’t need a “Good evening, sir”, but I do expect a “Hi, can I take your order?”, and not a slack-jawed, dead-eyed “Whaddayouwant?” If I get the latter, I get offended.

Brevity is Not Always Best

I also disagree with the author’s approach to brevity: “Rarely does an email require more than three sentences. If it does, consider calling or getting together in person.”

Again, while it might be true that rarely does online communication require more than three sentences, I think email is great when “more than three sentences” is exactly what is required. Some ideas are complicated, or subtle. We shouldn’t sacrifice nuance and complexity at the altar of brevity.

I am glad that tweets are limited to 140 characters. I am also glad that I am not limited to Twitter.

And while calling and meeting in person can be great, they are often logistically undoable, especially in a global business world where work hours and languages do not always sync up. Timyo is an international, multilingual company. I’ve found that emails—which can be written and revised at the sender’s leisure, and read and considered at the recipient’s—are in fact a huge time saver for our team.

Say “When”.

Timyo‘s goal is to help users communicate as succinctly as possible with the bare minimum of anxiety or misunderstandings. That’s why we focus so much on helping senders give clear, concise, and polite expectations to their recipients, rather than hemming and hawing about how to best phrase a request, or else asking recipients to pore over emails looking for some clue as to what senders want and when they want it.

Hamblin’s piece offers advice set up by its title: “How to Email.” I think it’s just as—if not more—important to consider “When to Email”. Keeping in mind that email is just one communication tool among many allows us to use it to its greatest effect.

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