Respectful Responsiveness: How to Be Professional in Email and Text by Fahim Mojawalla and Marty Johnson
The more devices we have, the more lax we seem to have gotten in our responsiveness. Ironic, isn’t it? It seems that there’s a culture of overload, which causes us to ignore more, respond to things hastily and incompletely, and generally get so barraged that we spend most of our days deflecting messages instead of reflecting on their content.
We want to share a few simple rules that have helped us try to sort through this conundrum, as well as a few points about the importance of responsiveness and the importance of being respectful in sending messages, especially professionally, that may help you get a handle on this common issue most business people face.
For ease of language in these rules, please note that when we refer to texts, we are also referring to any messaging platform other than email…like social media messages, Slack, WhatsApp, and more.
Rule #1: Know appropriate response timeframes
A text should be responded to faster than an email. This is logical to most, right? Texts are generally for people you know well and are comfortable interrupting to get a response from quickly. Unless you’re in a meeting, driving, sleeping, at the theater, or otherwise engaged, try to respond to texts within an hour or two.
An email, on the other hand, generally has a standard business day or two response time. Most people check their emails at least once a day, though many of us check much more often than that. Some people have a dedicated hour or two on their schedule when they do emailing and then let it sit. So, if emailing someone, unless they have an away auto-response, give at least a standard business day or two for them to get back to you. And remember, standard business days are Monday through Friday, excluding holidays.
Rule #2: Use appropriate media for different types of messages
If you’re reaching out to someone and it’s not a rush and can wait a day or two, send an email. Don’t text them. Don’t interrupt their day for something that’s not interrupt-worthy.
If you’re sharing important information that should be kept on record, send an email. Most people use emails as reference points, archiving them and searching them for important information. When that type of information is sent in a text, it can easily get lost because texts aren’t searchable like emails are.
If you don’t know the person well and have not been given direct permission or access to their personal social media messaging apps or phone number for texting, send an email. Otherwise, it can come off quite creepy.
Rule #3: Keep it to standard business hours
While some people like Marty have email notifications turned off on their phones and try not to check email after the workday or on weekends, others don’t have that luxury or ability to compartmentalize. Some people answer emails right away from wherever they are, so keep that in mind. Do you really need to bother that contact on Sunday morning?
Keep in mind the common times for people to attend religious services or have days dedicated to rest, prayer, family, or community service: Friday afternoons, Friday evenings, Saturdays, and Sunday mornings, depending on one’s faith and common worship times. This means that you really don’t want to be messaging them at these times when they want to disconnect from the world and focus on sanctuary space. With this in mind, and excluding holidays, we advise the following as standard hours during which it’s generally free game to send messages to business contacts: Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. in the time zone in which the receiver is, and Friday 9 a.m. through noon. Unless it’s an emergency, keep Friday afternoons and the weekends free so people can have a break.
Knowing the receiver’s time zone is important. If you’re on the east coast at 9 a.m. and texting someone on the west coast, keep in mind it’s 6 a.m. there and totally not cool to reach out yet. And if you know the receiver is out of the country, make sure you’re not waking them up in the middle of the night wherever they are.
Rule #4: Schedule emails
If your time to get all of your emailing done is outside of standard business hours, that’s no problem. Simply schedule your emails. Fahim does this. He realizes that weekends and early mornings / late nights are really his best time to focus away from his hectic workday and family commitments, so it’s then that he generates much of his outreach and responses. But, he doesn’t send them then. He schedules them to go out Monday morning during standard business hours so he doesn’t interrupt people.
Rule #5: Respond promptly, but politely
If you can’t talk at the moment and someone does reach out via text or a messaging platform, still try to respond in an hour, but it’s OK in doing so to let them know that you can’t focus on their question right away. Simply acknowledge it and tell them that you will get back to them when you can. Because you can’t mark a text as unread, leave yourself a note or voice memo so you don’t forget to actually go back and respond properly when you have time.
The exception to this rule is if someone is texting you after appropriate hours, which we discussed in Rule #3. If this is the case and you feel interrupted at an inappropriate time (like that 7 a.m. text from your type A morning person colleague that wakes you up from a beautiful dream, or that midnight text from another colleague that also wakes you up from a beautiful dream), in which case it’s totally valid for you to wait until a comfortable time for you to respond during normal working hours. This serves to protect your private time and also doesn’t reinforce their bad behavior by eliciting an immediate response from you off-hours.
Rule #6: Give context
If you do need to text someone at an odd hour or if something comes up where interrupting their sanctuary time is necessary, give some context. Don’t simply call and hang up without leaving a voicemail if they don’t answer, or without following up with an explanation text. Simply tell them briefly what to expect like, “Please call me when you wake up. It’s not bad news, but I need to talk to you quickly before I get this project launched.” Or “No one died. Don’t worry. But I do need to talk to you quickly, so please reach out as soon as you’ve had your coffee.” Otherwise, when reaching out off-hours, many people are likely to think the worst, get flustered and stressed, and go through unnecessary anxiety before reaching back out to you.
Rule #7: Thank people for their time
This is basic, but so often neglected. If you’re asking someone for some of their time for a message, question, or call, be sure to thank them when it’s done. Simply say, “Thank you very much for your time” at the end of the conversation, acknowledging that you understand that they have just given you that most precious commodity for most business people: time.
And there you have it. Responsiveness correlates with being respectful of other people’s boundaries, and we hope these lucky seven simple rules may help you not only be more professional in your outreach, but also more professional and thorough in your responses.
In future articles, we hope to share more about the importance of professional communication, including some basic tips on professional writing, storytelling, editing, and more. Stay tuned!
Fahim Mojawalla is the Motivation and Mission Lead at AYM High Consultants. He loves what he does and would love to show you how to make 21st century sales and marketing easy, simply by being authentic, appreciative, respectful, responsive, empathetic, collaborative, and all-around awesome. Along with his wife Seema, he is an effervescent co-owner of Island Ship Center, the Spa of Shipping. #FahimFix
Marty Johnson is the Communication and Vision Coach at AYM High Consultants as well as a columnist and editor. He enjoys sharing his experience and perspective through writing and coaching, as well as producing the mail and business center industry's leading magazine, MBC Today. Subscribe to his newsletter and read more at askunclemarty.com; follow him on socials @askunclemarty. #AskUncleMarty