What are reasonable expectations of professional courtesy?

Last Tuesday I sent out four email messages inviting people to serve as judges for the Movers and Shakers in Archives awards. One of those messages was to someone I know, the other three were to people I do not know. In the message I asked them to respond “within the next few days.” The person I know responded very quickly, regretfully declining. I have not received any replies from the other three people.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t think about blogging about this, but it continues a disturbing trend and I would like to ask for your professional opinions. What are reasonable expectations of professional courtesy? Since starting this blog a year ago, I’ve sent out a lot of email messages to people I don’t know (and many to people I do know). At least 50% of the time, I don’t receive any form of reply or acknowledgment. In all of these cases, I am writing to someone regarding a professional matter, often offering an opportunity or a service, and usually in regard to the person’s elected or appointed role in a professional organization.

My expectation would be that I would always receive a reply of some kind, however brief, within a relatively short period of time. Say a week. Is this unreasonable? I don’t expect this to happen 100% of the time–we all know that things happen. People are sick, they have family issues, messages get caught in spam filters–things happen. But for the most part, no matter how important and busy you are, and no matter how unimportant you think the person contacting you is, I still think you are obligated to respond in a timely manner. But, since am I finding that my colleagues do not seem to share this expectation, I ask you: am I unrealistic, and what do you think constitutes a “timely manner”?

Regarding the membership of the jury, my intent in inviting people I don’t know was to bring in other points of view and broaden the perspective of the jury. I’m re-thinking that approach. Perhaps I would be better off after all in choosing people I know and that I know I can count on. I find it interesting that in such a small profession people don’t seem concerned about possibly offending a colleague by, essentially, blowing them off. Or is it that I’m usually writing to people who are so far along in their careers that they really just don’t care anymore?

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18 thoughts on “What are reasonable expectations of professional courtesy?”

  1. This is a major peeve of mine, too…if you don’t have time to respond fully to an inquiry, just send a quick note saying so. I don’t think your expectations are unreasonable, personally–but I am someone who makes a concerted effort to stay on top of email and to maintain a de-cluttered inbox. I do find it ironic that many archivists (whose job it is to organize) are so bad with email!
    And I think there’s an element of truth to the last question you posed, as well (unfortunately).

  2. I also get annoyed with people’s lack of reply/long delays.

    Over the past 8+ years in the field, I’ve tried to remain open-minded about it, at least when dealing with people who are the sole professional in their place (like I have often been), or, as much as I hate to say it, people who had to start using email halfway into their professional lives instead of basically growing up with it. And lately since going part-time, I have relaxed a little bit more–because now it’s me who doesn’t always return an answer as quickly as I’d like.

    I have found that if my subject line on an email is not explicit enough, those messages are the ones that tend to slip by, so I’ll spend a lot of time coming up with the right three or four words, especially when writing to someone who is known to be slow.

    I definitely think within a week is appropriate for most of the year, and beyond that a bit of apology for delay would be nice.

  3. It is indeed frustrating, but I try not to take it personally–even though I usually do, and I have to be reminded by the zen-master who is my boss not to do so.

    By and large, your judgment is correct that there is no good reason why someone can’t reply to your request in a few days, especially if you communicate that their attention is urgent. It’s just that they are bad at email, I guess–which is a flaw. Also, if you subscribe to multiple email listservs, that can often bog down your inbox and bury more important messages. And a lot of people check their mail via a webmail client, which means every hour or so they get blasted by a bunch of unread messages.

    But there are things you can do to manage the clutter, of course. If you use an email client, it’s a lot easier to manage your incoming mail–although there are persuasive arguments against being so “tethered” to technology. And if you subscribe to a listserv digest or RSS feeds, this can cut down on the amount of irrelevant email you receive. I have done certain things to get my number of incoming emails per day down to 30 or so.

    My girlfriend has a job where she gets like over 100 emails a day that require response! Even so, she tried to get back to people in no more than 2 days. So, I think I’m frustrated when people don’t get back to me? Trying being someone who works even harder than we do on getting back to people, only to watch her own emails enter the same black hole.

  4. I really don’t think this is an issue of the technology itself. I think this is an issue of laziness and rudeness on the part of so-called professionals who have never considered service to other people as the number one priority of their job. I chose to become an archivist not because I wanted desperately to work with old documents, but because I wanted to HELP PEOPLE use those documents that I was responsible for organizing, managing, and preserving. (On this blog, you have spoken of archivists being connectors. I agree that that’s what archivists are and should be.)

    Sadly, what I’ve found in my many years of experience is that I am decidedly in the minority. I recall a discussion on the listserv about six years back in which a great many people talked about how reference was the part of being an archivist that they liked least. (What started the thread was the admission that some facilities send email auto-responses to research requestors letting them know that it may be weeks or months before they receive any response to their query.) The stereotype about the introverted archivists who simply want to horde their materials and be left alone and unbothered by the general populace seems sometimes to be all too true. Sending email to these kinds of people is like sending the message into oblivion. They don’t want to be bothered, and email allows them the convenience of choosing not to be bothered.

    Don’t take it personally that they ignore your messages, take some comfort in the fact that you know you are more of a professional than they have ever been or will ever be, and continue to do the work that you do without and in spite of them. Just because they have consciously chosen to relegate themselves to irrelevancy doesn’t mean that you should as well.

  5. Professional or even personal courtesy can be almost impossible in some jobs. At my place of work, we are so understaffed that dealing with email is almost like triage. You handle the ones that are bleeding and screaming the loudest. Some days are a battle, and some days you lose.

  6. Stephen, I do think the aversion to reference is fading with the new generation. And I’d like to think younger archivists buck that antisocial stereotype–like or not, being a 21st-century archivist means building alliances.

    Joan, I think the operative word in your comment is “some” jobs. You’re absolutely right that sometimes organizations are so strained that their employees are truly overworked and might overlook emails from their colleagues. Fortunately, this is the exception to the rule. Perhaps those 3 out of 4 people Kate sent her email out to work in such a war zone. But I doubt it.

    Kate, Joan brings up a great technique though. Next time you send out an email, in the subject line write, “I’M BLEEDING OUT!” Might work!

  7. So, to grossly over-simplify, what I think the commenters have said so far is that my expectations are reasonable, except when people are:

    a) so lacking in basic communication skills and/or time management skills that they don’t effectively manage their email and so cannot reliably communicate using it, or

    b) so overwhelmed by their workplace circumstances that professional or even personal courtesy is impossible, or

    c) are so lazy, rude, or introverted that they do not want to respond to email because they really don’t care about other people.

    I agree these are all realistic explanations, although I think it would be sad to think that any combination of these would be the case for about half the people in the profession, if my experience can be generalized. Let me throw out another possibility:

    d) that for some percentage of our colleagues, when they reach a certain level in their careers, they decide they don’t have to respond to messages from people they don’t know. If my name doesn’t strike them as someone important, then I’m not worthy of their time–even to the extent of dashing off a quick “no thanks” email.

    I think between these four explanations we may have accounted for everything. I think we also have many well-meaning people who read a message quickly, truly intend to get back to it and reply, and then become distracted or overwhelmed and don’t get back to it, and then, perhaps, feel embarrassed about it and so never reply at all. That’s some mixture of the above reasons, but with a dose of good intentions thrown in.

    Thoughts like these don’t leave me with a particularly optimistic outlook on the profession, but then I remind myself of the 50% of my experience which has been positive, and also of the wonderful colleagues who have given me unsolicited feedback and support. Maybe that should be taken into account in the score as well. During this past year I’ve also been actively trying to reach out and spread ideas and information as widely as possible, and this year I may try to improve my response rate by narrowing my contacts. Perhaps I have reached that elevated level of my career when I don’t need to bother to reach out to people I don’t know. Except via this blog, of course!

  8. I am frequently annoyed by the lack of response to any sort of communication. I try my hardest to reply to email and phone calls within a 48 hour period. I know that may be too much for some people, but I’m a bit weird that way. I try to reply to Facebook and MySpace messages within a one week period. Those I tend to hold off on because they are more social than professional. I feel like my colleagues are under the same time constraints that I am under and it only shows that I respect them by responding to them in a timely manner.

  9. I tend to cut people some slack on this right now, because I’m on maternity leave. You never know what might be up with people when you send messages.

    That being said, this issue often annoys me as well. But it’s such a prevalent problem I feel weird complaining about it.

  10. The more collaborative work that I’ve done, the more this issue has irked me. With some things you can just say silence means consent and move on, but other email messages require a response. Now, I’ll sometimes pick up the phone when I don’t get a response. It’s a way to touch base and see how things are going, even if it isn’t with someone that you know that well or at all. I give training sessions on email use and management and that’s one of the big pet peeves of many people – when a colleague doesn’t put an out-of-office reply on their email and then doesn’t respond for a few weeks. As others have said, even a response that says “I’m swamped” or “I’ll get back to you in a week” is better than no response. Even if our profession was huge, communicating with colleagues should be a large component of our professional practice.

  11. As a lowly library student, I pretty much anticipate any email inquiry taking at least a week to return (if at all), although I do admit to having worse experiences in other fields.

    I call to follow up three days after I send an email. It helps, because sometimes I get the email address wrong or the recipient didn’t recognize the name and thought it was junk mail or worthless. I seem to find that email is getting to be a less and less convenient form of communication, because of the ease of dismissal, so if I can, I will usually call or stop by someone’s office. Calling is probably the most efficient, though. Sometimes people will read an email, think “oh, I’ll reply this afternoon,” and forget. I’ve been guilty of this, myself.

    I just figure that if I want something from someone, I am going to have to make it as easy as possible for them. If that means calling to remind them of every step, so be it.

  12. I haven’t had much reason to notice this problem with fellow archivists, but it is pervasive on our campus. I have frequently failed to get responses from people critical to moving forward on projects, presumably because they are too busy or the archives/library is just too low on their priorities list. Whatever the reason, I do not view it as professional behavior and in our particular department (library), we hold ourselves to a higher standard. My director and I have talked about the problem at length and the only conclusion we’ve reached is that we are motivated by the need to provide good, professional service as the result of our professional ethics, and we can only assume that those who are ignoring us do not have that same self-expectation.

    I know that if I do NOT answer an e-mail within a day or so, if only to tell someone when I will be able to get back to them, I view that as a problem. Certainly when I am out of my office, I make sure that people are aware that if I am not responding, it is because I am unable to, not unwilling to, by using my out of office. This is important because reference is a major aspect of my job, and a significant portion of my reference queries are by email or phone call rather than in person. This means that my processing takes a back seat when things get busy, but I’d rather I met people’s needs promptly.

  13. I would agree with Dani and Erin that if you don’t get a reply by e-mail, use the phone. I’ve noticed that people immediately apologize for not responding to e-mail if you call.

    I also agree that reference is changing. Where I work, a younger generation of management has taken over and though we are still short-staffed, reference takes precedent over all things. Our policy is 24 hours to respond.

  14. Let the record show that I responded to Kate’s judging inquiry promptly! 🙂 And I think the expectations of email, fairly or otherwise, is for nearly immediate response. So that’s what I shoot for. I usually try to answer as soon as I receive it, unless preparing a response requires an unusual amount of research or thought … or anger-management, if it is a note which requires a cooler head! I like to say this is an example of excellent customer service … and it is. But I also know from sad experience that if I drop the ball with somebody’s email, it is because I put it aside for a moment, instead of addressing it immediately. So it’s more of a quality control issue for me.

  15. From my experience, I am puzzled about the comments indicating the previous generation (boomers?) was indifferent or hostile to reference. I’ve worked at several repositories and most of my colleagues enjoyed reference work. They found the research questions frequently more interesting than the day to day work of processing, description, management, etc. One of the repositories did use auto responses but the intent was to provide more information and assistance – acknowledgment that the requests arrived and that some time was needed to check the collections. Yes, some times weeks might be needed to respond but we generally worked to respond as quickly as possible.

  16. Realize this blog is quite old, but to offer a different perspective.

    In my opinion, email is out of control. People generate emails, copy anyone vaguely involved, and consider their part of the communication responsibility to be complete. When the ‘topic of the email’ comes up weeks or even months later and they are met with unknowing gazes, they feel fully justified to respond with a condesending attitude and a quick, “you were copied on the email”.

    Communication is a two-way street. That said, I am a firm believer that the primary responsibility for ensuring the message is recieved falls to the presenter.

    I receive over 75, often even over 100 emails a day; of those, I estimate that about 10% are “of substance”. Many so not apply to me at all. Some are marketing; some are marketing disquized not to look like marketing. I have a job and responsibilities. The law of diminishing returns (and the rule of 80/20) tells us that at some point the amount of time we invest in something has a low return on investiment. I would definately put emails from people I don’t know in that catagory. I may not understand who your audiance is, maybe emails from people you don’t know is part of the general job description, but for many, that is not the case. Add to that, some companies are very security conscious and email carrries risk. My employer generally advises employees to ‘err on the side of caution’ when dealing with emails from unknown sources; obviously never opening attachments or clicking links, but further in avoiding replying (or activating message read features) if it might give a positive response to some person or entity who may be using for marketing or ‘blast email’ type purposes.

    My personal opinion; if dealing with someone you don’t know, start with a phone call, and follow-up with email only once you have gained their permission.

  17. “My personal opinion; if dealing with someone you don’t know, start with a phone call, and follow-up with email only once you have gained their permission.”
    Totally agree with Barbara!

  18. This is a big time pet peeve of mine, and it seems to be an epidemic anymore. It is rare for me to get a reply on anything. I’ve recently started a new job, I’ve almost reached my 90 days, and it is rare if I get any response. I do communicate face to face, but it’s been proven that my coworkers don’t even listen to me.
    I always make sure to reply to any emails that are sent my way, and if I don’t have the answer I reply back letting the person know that I’ll work on getting what they need.

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