We all seem to be drowning in messages of all sorts: WhatsApp, Facebook, text and voice messages, messengers of all colors and – of course – emails. And yet I find the difference of the communication culture between Europe and a lot of the English speaking world remarkable.
When I signed my contract to be the cello professor at the University of Auckland in 2008, I also had to sign a code of conduct, in which I had to commit to email communication. I was obliged to read my emails within certain (short!) periods of time and, naturally, to answer them. My email inbox, already quite regularly filled with hundreds of emails around paladino and my life as a cellist, grew exponentially. Yet I pride myself on having mostly stayed on top of it: about once a year I even managed a completely empty inbox, and not by deleting them! Nowadays, without the university job, I am back to about 80 emails per day, about 60 of which need more action than reading. I have developed a quite efficient system of archiving or deleting read and sent emails, and the average turnover in a month would now be around 2500 to 3000 emails that I deal with in one way or another. Currently there are 76 unanswered messages sitting in my inbox, and it would take me about two days to get rid of them all. Some, I admit, I make go away by just ignoring them – knowing that time will bring the answer to the sender. Shame on me.
In terms of how to respond, I discovered that emails with four different questions in one messages are a nuisance, because one answer might be there right away, and another might be dependent on somebody else, research, time or just a different mood. Which is why in such a case, I only answer the first question in an email, knowing that the sender will get back to me with the others. That also means that I try to send emails to other people with not more than one question/request or topic and rather send them five messages in a row about five different things. If you read this and think about emailing me, please do the same. And I rarely read emails that are longer than my screen, unless they are private messages from friends. Most super busy people keep their emails reader-friendly and short, a role model that I try to copy, and I found out that unnecessary and/or incomprehensibly long emails will return as excerpts after a while, so deleting them is an option. Or I fool myself and the sender by just answering the first sentence (see above).
I must admit that I am less effective with calling people back, which is why I got rid of voicemail on my mobile and rather divert calls to the office when I am not available. Facebook messages are even more hopeless for me, but with text messages on the cellphone I can cope. And yes, occasionally I still write letters, be it with the computer or even by hand.
Over the years I have often seen that very high-powered people are the quickest to reply to an email, and I was more than once surprised about receiving answers in a hot second from CEOs of multimillion dollar companies or at unusual times of the day. Mind you, all this usually only goes for freelance workers or business people. Turn towards a European institution where jobs are not connected to budgets (and there are a lot of them!) or – a perfect example – academia, and you might as well print your messages out, put them in a bottle and throw them into the Danube. Recently I emailed two cello professors in Austria and Germany, enquiring about study options for a young cellist who had played for me, and naturally had no reply. Had I done that at Auckland, I would have lost my job if anyone had found out, and possibly even have been sued for damages: If a student enrolls into a BMus degree, the university makes around 30.000 NZ$ in fees. So: Dear people, answer your emails! Others do too.