How quickly should you reply to email?


I’m a judgemental email sender and an anxious email recipient. When I send someone an email, I judge them based on their response time: instant? slow? eternal?

And by judgement, let me be clear: I’m not judging them on their email skills alone. Increasingly, I use email response time as an indicator of someone’s intrinsic worthiness as a human being. Non-responders are rude and unreliable; instant responders are clearly people with too much time on their hands.

Of course, my readiness to judge others leads me to assume that others are judging me: thus, my anxiety about how quick I respond to the latest missive in my inbox. An email happens to arrive just as I’m doing my brain-clearing inbox-check; the answer is easy, so I might as well respond instantly. But will that make me look like an idle slacker? Or maybe the email isn’t so easy-to-answer, so I set it aside, and then suddenly remember the unanswered message a week later: Oh no! They’ll think I’m a total flake!

All this judging — of self and others —  reminds me of the famous George Carlin line: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” On email, the same principle holds true: people who reply (much) faster have too much time on their hands, and people who reply (much) slower are simply rude.

But in the normal curve of email response times, where are the cut-off points? What’s the speed of email response that makes someone look unpardonably slow? Suspiciously fast? I’m curious to hear what the response time is that you think constitutes the cut-off line on each side of the curve.

Normal curve of email response times

6 Comments on this site

  1. John Larkin

    Interesting. I check my email once in the morning, and perhaps once in the afternoon. My usual recipients are used to that and work in with me. They respect that. When I am on holidays I do not check work related email at all.

  2. Ann Gomez

    Great post Alexandra. I love when I read something that makes me think: “What a relief – I’m not the only one!” I try to push through these worries and abide my a rule that I am always preaching. I was thinking about closing you email and coming back to it later, but then I reminded myself to get over myself and just finish the task. Others can think what they like, but I’m happy that I’m clearing my inbox! (And trying to only check email a few times a day … although I admit that I check it far more than is really necessary.)
    Thanks again for an entertaining read.

  3. Ravi Pathak

    I have found an interesting thing happened to me when I deliberately changed the speed of my email response. When you work towards responding every email so quickly, you are unconciously converting yourself in a reactive mode of work and very likely loose track of whats there in your to-do list. My better sense prevailed and i used email to convert into my to do list rather than email itself becoming the de facto to do list.

  4. Social Progress

    Great blog post Alex. Probably like you I’m receiving more & more emails. Trying to filter out the ‘noise’ from the genuine ‘stuff’ I want to know about and respond to is becoming a bigger & bigger challenge these days. Invariably I try to respond to emails the day they come in otherwise they can get lost in the ‘noise’ and I tend to forget to respond. However these always those which need a bit more thought into the response in which case I may acknowledge the email & let them know I’ll get back to them as soon as! Not responding within a couple of days to me shows that someone is either dis-organised, has too much on or doesn’t want to engage with you.

    Cheers – Janet

  5. Ben

    You seem to have read my mind! People who reply too slowly (or not at all) are rude and inconsiderate, but people who respond too fast are hyper and haven’t thought things through. It takes a little time to respond to someone’s queries. It shouldn’t take that much though. It all depends on the email, but withing 12-72 hours is reasonable. Anything beyond that is simply unacceptable.

  6. Nancy

    I do not respond quickly to work nonsense. It’s only a job, they’ll hire you, fire you willy nilly. Sit on the emails and work slow.

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