Email is deeply ingrained in our everyday professional and personal lives. Still, we haven’t all mastered the communication method.
There are the people whose inboxes are a bit unwieldy, resulting in important messages falling by the wayside with no response. On the flip side, there are those who overuse the reply button, always needing to send something back to every little email. The truth is, it can be hard to know when to cease an email back-and-forth.
“In face-to-face communications, I ask you a question, you respond with the answer,” Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, told HuffPost. “I signal your answer was heard by saying ‘thank you’ or by nodding my head or, if I am sullen teenager, by grunting. Three steps to complete the communication circle: inquiry ― response ― acknowledgment.”
She noted that we have a similar way to do this with texting. Someone sends a text, the other person responds and then the original sender indicates the response was received with the reaction buttons or by sending an emoji.
“However, we do not have the thanks, nod, grunt, or thumbs up when we are communicating by email,” Smith said. “Which means we may find ourselves in a prolonged downward spiral.”
Indeed, we’ve all encountered an email back-and-forth that goes on much longer than is necessary for fear of seeming rude or unresponsive. But there are a few rules of thumb to help people find a stopping point. Below, Smith and Barbara Pachter, author of “The Essentials of Business Etiquette,” share their advice.
Make sure the communication circle is closed.
“You can stop responding if the person doesn’t need to be thanked, or if you don’t need to let the recipient know you got the email,” Pachter said.
Say you email a professor to ask a question about an upcoming exam, and she responds with an answer to your question. In this case, Pachter noted, it is polite to reply with a quick “thank you” to acknowledge that you received the information and show your gratitude for their time.
Beyond that point, no further messages are needed. The professor knows you received their message and are grateful, and she does not have to respond. Both parties are on the same page and there was a polite acknowledgment of the service provided.
“Recently someone requested some information from me,” Smith recalled. “I sent it to them. They replied with a ‘Thank you. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.’ I could have left it there, but wanted to be polite and wished them ‘I hope you have wonderful Thanksgiving as well.’ There was no need for them to reply with a ‘thank you.’ My email finished the interaction.”
Similarly, in replying to emails from readers seeking advice, Pachter said that after she responds to their inquiries, she appreciates a reply acknowledging or thanking her for her guidance but doesn’t expect anything beyond that.
“It doesn’t have to be a long response with a salutation,” she said. “Just saying ‘Thanks’ shows the message was received, and it only takes a second to read.”
Indeed, simple messages can suffice, and you don’t have to keep the thread going on and on.
“It is not about having the last word,” Smith noted. “It is about completing the communication circle by making sure the real and relevant information has been received. Once the reply is acknowledged, the communication can end.”
Consider the specifics of the exchange.
Of course, the need for additional responses depends on the situation.
“A long email stream about meeting on Saturday may pitter out without ceremony or a defined conclusion,” Smith said. “But a change of time from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. requires a response and an acknowledgement of the response.”
When someone emails about moving a meeting or brunch from one time to another, they need confirmation that you know the time has changed or they might worry the message wasn’t received.
Beyond logistical needs, other factors can affect the way you close the communication circle.
“There are cultural differences between different countries,” Smith said. “There are variations in organizational culture and even by department.”
These differences might inform when and how you stop responding. For example, Smith explained that someone in the shipping department might be able respond with a simple “K,” whereas those in client services may reply with, “Thank you for your prompt response.”
“And, of course there are power differences,” she added. “The CEO may end the email circle without concern, but the clerk might think thrice before hitting delete.”
The key is to think about your audience. If it’s a personal correspondence, it might be easier to shift the conversation to text or a phone call if you know they don’t check their email during the weekend, for instance.
Beware the “reply all-pocalypse.”
We’ve all been there. You’re included in an email thread with many other recipients and suddenly everyone is using the “reply all” button, spamming you with notifications.
“Unless everyone in that group needs to know your response, don’t reply all,” Pachter said. “If you need to reply, just reply to the sender.”
If you’re emailing about a group project and trying to figure out a good time to meet, then everyone does need to see your availability. But if someone is simply sending a training manual to a distribution list, there’s no need to send your “thanks” to everyone.
“If everyone on the email stream does not need the answer or does not need to be involved in arriving at the answer, it is totally fine to have a sidebar conversation including only those who need to be included, providing you let the entire group know the end result,” Smith said.
If you’re the original sender and need to make sure the entire group saw your email, you can make use of the read receipts function, rather than waiting for everyone to reply to you. But use that feature sparingly.
“Back in the early years of email, there was a consultant who sent every email to me with a read receipt,” Smith said. “That was excessive and annoying.”
On the other hand, you can make it clear when the information you’re sending is just an FYI and no reply is necessary. Whether you’re emailing a group or an individual, simplify the situation by noting when you don’t need a response.
If the conversation keeps dragging on, don’t be afraid to take the matter off email as well.
“You know the corporate joke about long, boring meetings that should have been an email?” Smith said. “Well, there are emails that should have been a meeting or a phone call. My guideline is that if I initiate more than three emails to the same person or people in an hour, chances are picking up the telephone and having a five-minute conversation will be quicker.”