Last week we asked readers to answer some questions about how they managed their email. The results are in, and boy are they … confusing. We’re having trouble identifying any clear patterns at all in email management. First of all, let’s get a sense of the scale of the problem. Here’s how respondents’ email use broke down:
Most respondents send and receive between 11 and 50 emails a day, and the vast majority — 84 percent of respondents — have non-spam email traffic of less than 50 per day. One respondent of the 251 who answered actually claims to send and receive over 1000 emails a day.
However, we were unable to uncover any patterns in email habits. Frequent emailers’ responses to the other questions were indistinguishable from those of infrequent emailers. Take a look at the responses to the question about how to handle quotations in email replies. The original question was “if you are exchanging several emails back and forth with one person, how do you handle quotes in replies?” Here’s how the responses broke down:
There were nearly as many top-quoters, who quote the original email above their reply, as bottom quoters, who prefer to reply first and keep the original message below. Some prefer to quote all the original messages in a series of emails, while others quote only relevant messages. With so many different ways of handling quotations, and no clear leader, it’s no wonder that emails often go unheeded.
Some responses showed more unanimity: 76.8 percent of emailers save all sent messages. Interesting, then, that I can recall using an email client which defaulted to deleting all sent mail.
Finally, we tossed in a wild-card question about the ethics of blind carbon copies — sending a copy of an email to another person, without the original recipient being aware of the practice. Do our respondents view this practice as ethical?
Again, little agreement, and no patterns corresponding to the other responses in the survey. But strong opinions prevailed, with a small minority suggesting this practice is always unethical. Most respondents agreed it was unethical except for mass emailings and/or routine administrative purposes. Despite this majority, 76 respondents took the time to type in other cases where they believed bccing was ethical. Half of these believed it was always ethical, but others offered a variety of additional instances: within an office, to a supervisor, to a partner, to conceal a private email address, for personal use. In short, there’s no consensus on when bccing is ethical.
This pattern seems to hold for emailing as a whole. Even though email has been around for over 30 years, and in common use for at least the last ten, there has yet to be a consensus about the best way to handle email correspondence. So perhaps it’s no surprise that sometimes email correspondents don’t meet the expectations of one or the other people involved. Perhaps it’s more surprising that email actually works as often as it does.