In the “old days,” when someone sent you a letter in the mail, you had at least a week or two to respond. If it took longer, you could always blame the postal service. Then, when email became a widely used communication tool, most people expected a response within 24 hours, a drastic change from the snail mail days. Fast forward to today, when most of us are walking around with smartphones, and that expected response time has become even shorter. Today, many people who send messages, expect an immediate response. After all, if your email is accessible 24 hours a day, why shouldn’t we all be expected to respond to messages right away? Throw in WhatsApp messages, G-chats, and all of the other instant messaging platforms, and some of us could be answering messages literally all day long! Since our communication options have come a long way since the days of snail mail, there is an expectation for quicker responses to messages. The question becomes, how long is too long to respond?

As an online teacher, I receive messages from students on a daily basis. Sometimes the messages are the typical grade requests, while other times a student may ask about topics for an upcoming exam, or a question about the day’s homework assignment. I always try to provide my students with all of the information they would need, but sometimes, they jump straight to the email message without looking anywhere else. While I always try to respond as quickly as possible, sometimes, because many of my students are based in the US (I am based in Israel) I cannot respond immediately, as it may be 2 AM when I receive the message.

A few weeks ago, this exact scenario took place, and while I responded as soon as I woke up at about 6:15 AM, the student complained that I took too long to respond to her question. At first, I was a bit annoyed and I kind of resented the complaint. After all, my response was waiting for her when she woke up. Then, I started to think of myself in the role of a teen, living in 2017, with phones, tablets, and even watches that deliver instant communication regardless of the time of day. All of the sudden I realized that even though I consider myself to be a tech-savvy person, I was in fact old, and out of touch with the minds of most of my high school students. They are in fact used to receiving instant responses, even during the late hours. The next day, I reminded my online class that while I loved working with them, they could not expect responses to questions at 2 AM. When I reminded them of our 7-hour time difference, the entire class was understanding, and some were even apologetic. What was interesting though, is that they did not realize this on their own. In their minds, messages should be answered instantly. It was clear that those days of having a week, or even a day to respond were long gone.

Well, this may be true for teens, but it is a different story entirely for those in older generations. Sometimes, I will send an email to a colleague or friend, and I will not receive a response for 3 or 4 days. For those who have been in this situation, sometimes this can be downright annoying. I am sending that message for a reason, and by taking so long to respond, there are times when my productivity can come to a standstill. Are these people being rude and inconsiderate? Perhaps, this is just a difference in our generations. One of my colleagues who is in his 60’s just bought his first smartphone about a year ago. I remember that at first he was completely overwhelmed. He would call me every day with questions. When I asked why he didn’t just send me a WhatsApp or instant message, he thought that I was speaking a foreign language. Now, after a year of playing and getting used to the modern technology, my colleague is much more proficient at sending and replying to messages (even WhatsApp). Unlike the younger generation, he still feels more comfortable picking up the phone and asking me a question, rather than sending me a message or email. So perhaps, those of us who grew up in earlier generations get a bit more time than the teens. Clearly however, based on my experiences, not too much more time.

With that said however, it is still rude and inconsiderate to ignore email messages. While we cannot possibly answer every trivial message that we receive, there should be a reason for not responding to an email. Sometimes, I receive emails in which I have no interest or idea of how to respond. Sometimes, a person emails asking for a favor which I have no ability nor interest to grant. Even in these cases however, I always try to send a short response of acknowledgement. If a person took the time to email me, the least I can do is take the time to respond, even if it is a short message.

With all of the instant communication options available to us, we always need to put ourselves in the position of the opposite party. When will they expect a response? How important is the request? And most importantly, how can we ensure that we do not come off as inconsiderate and unprofessional? Just like the technology options have changed, so have the rules of etiquette and communication. It is important for us to set the right example in order to ensure a productive and professional digital communication environment.