Quite Possibly the Most Flattering E-Mail Ever

Many people have written many nice things to us over the years. (Of course some people have written some not-so-nice things too.) But the following is my favorite, or at least my new favorite:

Good afternoon Stephen,

I am a psychologist by education and spend my professional life as a consultant in the field of higher education and an executive coach.  I spend my personal life as a mother, wife, sister, daughter, and friend.  In all these roles I: (1) have many opportunities to improve and (2) try to express my gratitude to those who help me.  It is for these two reasons that I send this email.

The Opportunity Cost of an Email

There’s a midterm this week in my class of 550 students, and I have been deluged with emailed questions, many procedural, that are covered in the online daily class summary. (For example, is the test being given in class?)  In the old days, when students came to office hours to ask questions, I wouldn’t have gotten most of these queries.  Regrettably, a student’s opportunity cost of emailing is much less than the cost of an office visit.

Why don’t I raise the cost to students by refusing to answer these emails?  If I thought that would deter all such questions and visits, I would refuse. But even if 20 percent of the emails translate into student visits, I’m better off answering the emails, since each takes me at most 1/5 as long as dealing with the question face-to-face in my office.  This is annoying, but I believe I save time this way.

How to Solve the "Reply-All" Problem?

E-mail has been around long enough for most of us to fall in love and hate and love with it at least a few times. Problems arise and are quashed, or dealt with. Innovations come along; customs evolve. But one grisly bad habit won't go away: the "reply-all" dilemma. You know what I'm talking about. Someone sends you a group e-mail. Maybe it's your company's marketing boss, or the head of your bowling league, or the parent-teacher liaison in your kid's school. And even if that e-mail was meant to be simply explanatory, or to garner responses only to the sender, inevitably a few of the people on the receiving end simply hit "reply all" and suddenly your in-box starts to fill up with a chattering storm of crap. Sure, you could mark all those senders as spam but then you might miss something important later. Sure, you could politely tell people not to use "reply-all" when it's unnecessary but plainly they don't think it's unnecessary, and you'll come off sounding like a jerk. Sure, you could just deal with it and chalk it up to a downside of a great invention. But does anyone have any better ideas?

Do Politicians Respond to Emails?

Writing at the Monkey Cage, political scientist Cristian Vaccari describes his research about how  political candidates, who often rely heavily on email lists, actually respond to emails:

As part of a broader study of the online presence of parties, party leaders, and Presidential candidates in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S., I tested whether and how rapidly their staffs responded to two types of emails (sent from separate fictitious accounts in the official language of each country): one asking for their positions on taxes (a cross-cutting issue that should not strongly differentiate between different types of parties), the other pledging to be willing to volunteer for them and asking for directions on how to do so. Emails were sent in the two weeks prior to national elections between 2007 and 2010 to a total of 142 parties and candidates. The results speak volumes to the lack of responsiveness among political actors: excluding automated responses, only one in five emails received a reply within one business day.