Saturday, January 17, 2015

Turn-Taking in Email Correspondence

Recently I was thinking about “turn-taking” in email correspondence among colleagues or friends. (I am not talking about business correspondence here). After all, email is a kind of reading and writing that most of us do daily. Linguists talk about “turn-taking” in spoken conversation, which involves the ways in which people decide (mostly unconsciously) when it is time for one person to stop talking and another to start. Much has been written about how and when this is done, how it is different in different cultures, how it differs by gender, what happens when someone speaks when it isn’t his or her turn, and much more. Here I write about my own feelings as I decide if, when and how quickly to reply to an email. Obviously if it is a mass mail, or spam, I don’t answer, but otherwise I generally do. If it is a simple query, I try to answer immediately. If it will require my checking something or finding some information, or further thought, I make a note to myself and answer within a day or two if possible. If it is a personal email from a colleague or friend just keeping in touch or sharing news, I also usually answer within a day or two or three. A question arises, though, when a friend and I have the kind of relationship and correspondence that takes place either sporadically, or at widely spaced intervals (maybe every month or two or more, for example). If I answer immediately, am I violating our unspoken agreement regarding frequency? Usually, though, there is an email, an answer, and THEN a break of a month or more. But sometimes the answerer asks a new question, or provides news that seems to require a response, and then I want to answer the question or to comment on the news (congratulations, condolences, etc.), so I add a third “turn.” Is the other person expected to reply to that third email? Or, if I am the one who receives the third turn, should I reply? Sometimes the solution is that the last email becomes very brief, signalling the end of the current round of correspondence (e.g., “Thanks, I appreciate that!” or “That’s great to hear!”). The crux of the matter is that at some point, someone has to stop the exchange, whether for a few days or weeks or months, and the other person has to feel OK about it. No one wants to feel they are pushing the other person into more frequent correspondence than they want or than is appropriate at their level of acquaintance or friendship, but they also don’t want the other person to feel one has suddenly gone silent on them, or to think one is being rude or neglectful. Fortunately all this is usually intuited unconsciously, and doesn’t take as much thought as I am giving it here; we can usually “feel” when the timing is right. But there are occasional hiccups or mismatches. Who hasn’t ever wondered “Should I reply to this email right away, or wait a while?” or felt “I wonder why XXX didn’t answer my last email”? (I don’t think I am the only one!)
Site Meter