There are times when I wish I could go on an email blackout. Quite simply, stop responding to emails. This will definitely be a new experience for me — living, as I do, with an almost religious belief that emails must never go unanswered. It’s a religion inspired by almost dogmatic rules of engagement.
It started as a habit at Hindustan Times, where all by-line articles had to be accompanied by the author’s email. As you can imagine, this could often get hairy. I received my fair share of angry, hateful mails — spiteful rants that should have been easy to ignore. I replied to every single one of them — from the best to the worst, navigating that spectrum with every ounce of humility, precision and self-control that must accompany an official email ID.
It’s a habit I have nurtured over the years and one that dare not break with the impunity my opening statement may inspire. My only excuse would perhaps be that I don’t work full-time or for anyone anymore. Nothing seems to inspire the urgency that had accompanied earlier jobs, especially one where I would often get a hundred or more emails in a day — questions; FYIs; updates; deadlines; PR requests; introductions; plans; proposals; pitches; and many, many newsletters I didn’t have the luxury to ignore.
Old habits die hard.
Effective communication is not a gift, it’s a habit — a skill that requires years of practice, being a continuous loop of rinse-and-repeat. It comes with a few rules of its own, most of them that I have learnt the hard way.
Neither definitive nor in any particular order, here are a few of my truths about writing/responding to emails:
- Carelessness is a curse. So is auto-correct and auto-fill. High-pressure work situations do demand speed. I say they also demand a spot of good manners and spell-check. I’ve forwarded obscene cartoons to a former boss only because the auto-fill in Gmail stabbed me in the back. I’ve been CCed on a client’s internal mail trail, only because I have such a common name. I’ve been e-introduced to another client’s MD as editor of ‘Smart Cuties’. Go figure. I have been Mr. Preet Singh, ‘Presto’, ‘Preeto’ and ‘Preetinder’ because someone forgot to pay attention. Tip: Even if you have one leg off the ledge on a busy day, breathe, read, send.
- Keep your anger away from that keyboard. I’ve learnt to avoid this by composing that whiny or angry mail that is my first instinct and store it in the ‘Drafts’ folder. I let it stew there on its own, read it after a few minutes and finally write the same mail I want to but in the tone I should. Tip: Remember to leave out the email ID in your rant; an accidental ‘send’ would be the end of that problem.
- Don’t add/ drop or CC people like you’re a city bus picking up passengers. Business emails either require a response or awareness. They can be a call to arms; calls for action or approval; nuclear threats to mild notifications; or raising a merry toast to a job well done. Knowing where you stand on that spectrum can make all the difference, right? Accord others the same courtesy. Tip: More people, more trouble. Except, when someone else deserves credit for a compliment you receive. Accept. Add. Acknowledge.
- Most business emails carry a ‘Best Before’ label. An ex-boss taught me a valuable lesson about responding to mails at work. Divide them into groups of expiry dates: immediate; within 2 hours; within 6 hours; and no later than 12 hours. Stick to the timeline. Tip: Let the ones that make you angry simmer over a flame that can snuff itself out before the 12 hours are up. If the clock is running, look away, watch a YouTube video of laughing babies and get back to it!
- Don’t dodge decisions. A former Union home secretary once told me that he exhorted his subordinates to ‘always take a decision as there are enough checks and balances in the system to right a wrong one, taken in good faith.’ This is even more true for dynamic work environments that are contingent on speedy & spunky decision-making. Tip: It’s not only (imminent) crises that require quick responses. It pays to stay ahead of the storm.
Here’s a rule I hope I haven’t broken. Stick to the script & keep it short.
Note: This is a slightly altered post that I had first published on my LinkedIn profile