Digital Incivility: The Unseemly Rise of Rudeness

In its early days, one of the joys of email was the access it provided to people who might otherwise be inaccessible, or very difficult to reach. I still remember a New Yorker article written by John Seabrook in 1994, which was effectively my introduction to this new technology. Titled "Email from Bill," it was written as an exchange of a series of emails between Seabrook and Bill Gates.

I was still a journalist at the time. The prospect of being able to speak directly to a CEO, without the filter of corporate flaks, personal assistants and other gatekeepers, was intoxicating.

Today, running a company that depends on access to senior executives, I still highly value the instant and direct connection that email makes possible. It feels like democracy in action. On a practical level, talking directly to those in the C-suite can radically shorten the sales cycle.

Of course, it also requires that you have the person's email address. To my surprise, I've found that it's often not that hard to get. I correspond regularly with CEOs and senior executives I couldn't have imagined getting on the phone in the pre-email era.

The flip side is that the person to whom you send an email is under no obligation to respond. I understand that. What I find disconcerting—even boorish—is the number of people who enter into some kind of dialogue on email, and then one day simply stop responding.

To be fair, most of these dialogues are transactional, and I'm usually communicating about a product or a service I'm trying to sell. But I'm also emailing with people I know and have been involved with for months, in relationships I'd assumed were grounded in good will and good faith.

So why do they sometimes stop responding? The obvious answer is that they're overloaded and overwhelmed. It's perfectly common for people in certain jobs today to receive 200, or 300, or even more emails a day. The default solution seems to be to ignore many of them altogether.

It's not just in corporations. I have a good friend who has a high level job at a medical school. Feeling inundated, she has basically given up on email and only answers those that seem utterly urgent. If I want to reach her, I call on the phone. We have that understanding, and it works.

But I don't believe it's just about time. Alan Mulally, the chairman and CEO of Ford, arguably has a busy life and he is known for answering nearly every email he receives the same day. That's my experience with him and with a fair share of other CEOs and senior executives. They simply make responding a priority.

At the same time, the facelessness of email has given other people an excuse to simply avoid difficult conversations, even if it means behaving in ways that would offend them if they were on the other end of the exchange (or non-exchange).

The real challenge is to find a balance between becoming a prisoner to your email and still responding in a reasonable period of time to those people who write to you with reasonable requests.

I'm no stickler for prissy etiquette. I just don't believe in normalizing rudeness. To ignore an email sent to you in good faith, especially by someone you know, is to forget that you're dealing with a fellow human being, who deserves to be treated with respect, and even with a modicum of care.

I especially appreciate it when people begin emails with my name and end with some sort of sign off, and their name. But that's a luxury. I'd far rather an honorific-free one-sentence email than no reply at all. It feels civilized, and helps create closure.

Three solutions to consider:

  1. Share your email practice with key people in your life. Consider adding something like the following to the bottom of all responses: "I do my best to respond to emails within 24 hours" (or 48, or whatever works for you).
  2. Create a generic acknowledgement for those email exchanges you don't want to continue. Example: "Thanks for writing. I'm inundated and just won't be able to get to this any time soon. Many apologies."
  3. Chunk your responses. Choose specific times to answer emails for a half hour or an hour at a time, so that you're fully focused on getting through them, rather than constantly interrupting yourself throughout the day. You'll be far more efficient, and you'll likely feel less overwhelmed.

In a world of unprecedented demand, we need to be more intentional than ever about how we treat others. Under constant pressure to get more and more done, faster and faster, it's easy to sacrifice our civility. We're all the worse for it when we do.

Reprinted from TonySchwartz.com

Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony's most recent book, The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @TonySchwartz.

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