When politeness gets in the way

Back on 2005, Ben Hammersley did a talk at Reboot called “Etiquette and the Singularity” in which he argued, amongst other things, that technology is rude and that it takes time for us to negotiate a set of manners around each new piece of technology as it arrives in our lives. The audio is still available and it’s still recommended listening.

I want to flip this idea on its head for a moment, because it’s not just technology that breaks etiquette. Sometimes, good manners break technology. Specifically: too much politeness breaks email.

Even ignoring spam and bacn, only a small percentage of our email is actually useful or interesting. Of the email that’s not spam or bacn, but also isn’t interesting, there’s an unexamined class of message that has largely gone unexamined: the polite but unnecessary response. These are email that we send purely because it would seem rude not to.

Once a substantive email has been sent, and a substantive response received, manners kick in and the email conversation devolves into a back and forth of polite replies that aren’t really achieving anything. They are the email equivalent of “Why, thank you!” “No, thank you!” “Oh, but really, thank you!”

The problem, I think, is that we transfer our manners from in-person conversation to email, and the change in context makes for discomfort, because all of the subconscious indicators that the conversation is over are missing. A conversation that would be concise in person becomes verbose in email as each participant tries to ensure that they have been adequately polite without any idea how to tell if they have been polite enough.

It’s a behaviour I’ve noticed in myself – responses I send not because they have any informational content at all, but because I don’t want the recipient to think I’m being rude by not acknowledging their email. They tend to be very short, made up of phrases such as “You’re welcome!”, “No problem!” or “Thanks again!” Sadly, such exchanges can become absurdly long if both people exhibit this behaviour.

In person, we can rely on phatic communication and body language to bookend our conversations. We can open a conversation with a flick of our eyebrows and close it with a smile. Email has no equivalent, and textual versions lack sufficient clarity to be reliable.

Overpoliteness is not a behaviour easy to change because at its root is the fear of social humiliation, or of accidentally insulting or upsetting someone else. But we do need to negotiate a different set of rules for what is polite in email and because it’s eating time without us even realising. As I wrote in the Guardian, it takes on average 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after you’ve been interrupted by email, so the cost of each pointless email is:

Total time cost = T(sw) + T(srec) + T(rr) + T(rrec)


T(sw) = time taken for the sender to write the email
T(srec) = time taken for the sender to recover their train of thought after sending the email
T(rr) = time taken for the recipient to read the email
T(rrec) = time taken for the recipient to recover their train of thought after interruption of reading the email.

If we assume it takes a modest 30 seconds to read, write, send and file the email and it’s 64 seconds to recover train of thought, that means it’s 188 seconds for the whole process, just over 3 minutes. Of course, if the recipient responds with another email, we start this all over again – that’s another 3 minutes down the drain. It all adds up. You could easily end up wasting hours each week just being needlessly polite.

This isn’t to say that I advocate being rude by email! Email’s a difficult medium to communicate well through, and many people cause more problems than they intend because they failed to consider how their words might be misread. But we do need to send less phatic email.

I wonder if one reason for this urge to send phatic email is that we have no reliable way of knowing if our email has been received and read. Because we want to know that about the emails we send, we assume others want to know that about the emails they send (they probably do) and so we feel a need to acknowledge everything. If email could be just a little bit smarter and could do this acknowledgement for us – although not by sending a read receipt which would simply be yet more bacn! Maybe if it marked a sent mail as ‘opened’ that’d be all the indictor we’d need.

The oft unacknowledged truth about email is that we’re still trying to negotiate an appropriate etiquette for it. But instead of thrashing our way through it like a bull in a china shop, we need to stop and think a little about what it is that we’re doing, and why we’re doing it in the first place.