Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Please reply ... immediately

The problem with e-mail is that it's just too quick. Back in the day when we wrote letters, it took some time to write a letter and more time to look for an envelope and a stamp. And then we had to put it into a mailbox. All this gave us a chance to think over what we wrote and reconsider whether it was really a good idea. It might take two or more days for this letter to be delivered, and even a prompt reply could take a week from the time we wrote the initial letter.

With e-mail and other forms of electronic communication, we can send messages in an instant and get replies almost as quickly. That's good, but it's also bad. It's too easy to send messages we will later regret, whether because they were sent in anger or with mistakes we didn't take the time to catch or even because we inadvertently sent them to the wrong person. And then we expect a reply immediately. Otherwise we begin to wonder: Did my message get through? Are they ignoring it? Has something happened to them? Don't they like me? We might have gotten the same kind of doubts with letters, but at least they took longer to develop. Delays were easier to understand.

Some people will send an e-mail and then, if they don't get a response within a few hours, send another asking the other party if the first e-mail was received. Of course, if the first e-mail didn't get through, why would the second? And if the person does reply, how will he or she know that e-mail has been received unless there is a prompt response to that one?

Barbara Wallraff addresses this problem in Word Fugitives, a book dedicated to finding "wanted words," or words that don't exist in any dictionary but could be useful in today's world. Among the words she sought in her Atlantic Monthly column is one for those people who write followup e-mails when they fail to get rapid responses to their initial e-mails.

Her readers suggested such possibilities as re-mailers, cybores, memorons, e-diots and NetWits. The best choices, I thought, were confirmaniacs and redundunces, yet all of these, with the possible exception of re-mailers, seem a bit harsh, especially since most of us who use e-mail desire quick responses ourselves. Only an annoying few let their doubts rule them and send those "Did you get my e-mail?" messages, but they are really not that different from the rest of us.

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