Navigating Email Expectations

Now in my 8th year as a psychology professor, one topic job that seems to consistently come up in conversation around working with students is email etiquette. I guess I should clarify that these conversations usually have to do with one part of email etiquette: expected response time. For better or worse (probably worse), it’s clear that in academia email has become the dominant way people communicate with each other. On any given day I might send and receive around 100 emails, most of which involve low level transmissions of information: the time and location of a meeting, questions about the format of a midterm exam, a reminder that a manuscript review is due, etc. Since I am in the system I have become accustomed to this and basically view email as a replacement for face to face conversation in an office. The frequency of in person interaction is so diminished that email has become a way to mimic these interactions.

Because of this I have seen the – often unspoken – expectations for prompt email responses ratchet up over the years. No longer it is OK to let an email sit in your inbox for days without replying, people expect email answered with the same promptness as texts. In fact, in a recent study of employees, the vast majority surveyed thought that work emails should be replied to within four hours after it was sent. Of course, with expectations come judgments. If we all agree that email is the primary way of communicating and if people don’t respond how we expect them to, we can easily development negative feelings. Conversely, if people respond very promptly – say within a few minutes – we can easily develop positive feelings.

I certainly don’t think it’s right that how prompt we are on emails should be used as a judgment on our character, for better or for worse. But I think it’s important to understand that this is the system we are living in at the moment in academia. Because of this it is essential that graduate and undergraduate students understand this system, even if they don’t agree with it. Promptly responding to emails from faculty will win you bonus points and being a slow responder will possibly cause some faculty to be annoyed and even agitated. Of course this is not something students ever want.

The solution is pretty simple. Studies have shown that checking email three times a day is the ideal number to be prompt while also not overwhelming yourself of the stress that comes with constant email updates. So, as a student, you don’t need to be one of these people constantly glued to their computer screen. But rather commit yourself to being someone who reads and replies to emails that ask for a reply the day you receive them, especially when the email is the request for simple information. If you can’t get back to someone within the day, send them a short mail letting them know when you will. Developing this routine will not only serve to minimize your inbox but will boost your reputation for being prompt and conscientious.

Kushlev, K., Dunn, E.W. (2015). Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Computers in Human Behavior 43, 220– 228. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.11.005

About the Author

Ryan Duffy is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida and has worked there since 2009. He received his B.A. from Boston College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. Website: