Health & Wellness

Waiting on an email? Why it takes some people SO long to respond

It seems as if you sent that email to your boss forever ago (or precisely 53 minutes ago). Why won’t she respond? Maybe she won’t grant your vacation time. Maybe you shouldn’t have made that joke.

It could simply be a generational difference. A recent study finds that email response time varies greatly by age and the older a person is, the fewer emails she will answer.

“Different people are able to cope with information load, email load [differently],” says Kristina Lerman, a project leader at the Information Science Institute at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and an author of the study. “We do have evidence that people have finite capacity to process information.”

The researchers looked at 16 billion emails exchanged by two million users over several months to see how long people took to reply and the length of response. The study finds:

  • If people are going to respond to an email, 90 percent will do it within a few days.
  • Half fire off a response in under an hour.
  • Teens reply the fastest, shooting back a response in 13 minutes, on average.
  • People aged 20-35 are almost as speedy, sending a reply in 16 minutes, on average.
  • It takes people, ages 35-50, about 24 minutes to reply.
  • People age 51 and older take a whopping 47 minutes to reply to their emails, on average.
  • Women take about four minutes longer than men to send a reply.
  • The most common responses contain five words.
  • More than half of the responses contain fewer than 43 words.
  • Only 30 percent of emails exceed 100 words.
  • Responses on the weekends are the shortest.
  • Want a lengthy reply? Make sure your email arrives in the morning.

Younger people respond to the most emails, but with the fewest words. Older people respond to the same number of emails no matter how many they receive. If they respond to 50 on a day when they receive 50, they’ll respond to 50 on a day when they receive 200, says Lerman.

Why don't they answer?

The problem with email lags? Waiting for a response feels torturous.

It’s because we’re social and view email as a way to connect.

“We expect someone to acknowledge us,” says Pamela Rutledge, direct of the Media Psychology Research Center, who was not involved in the study. “There’s a lot of social anxiety that comes along with [no email responses] because no one wants to be disrespected or no one wants to be ignored.”

Rutledge says that the study points out patterns, but does not explain why a difference exists between older and younger users. She cautions people from reading the results as negative. It’s not bad that younger users send short responses, just like it isn’t negative that older users send lengthy responses.

“Understand in this new world short [or long] does not have an implicit value judgment,” she says. “There is a misunderstanding that technology gets in the way of relationships. I think that it facilitates it.”

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