Sunday, August 04, 2013

Did you read my email?

An email arrived on a late Monday afternoon that seemed part question and part challenge.

A reader from Northern California wrote to say that in a typical week, he might send out five emails to members on the staff of various organizations with information that he believes they might find interesting. On weeks when relevant news is breaking, he says he might send out as many as 10 to 20 of these emails.

When he sends his emails out, he indicates that he usually clicks the box for "request a read receipt," which would allow his recipients who receive his emails to click if they want him to know they read his emails. "However," he writes, "my tracking record of confirmation feedback of a read receipt is less than 10 percent."

Assuming that not all of the emails he sends out go unopened or unread, the reader wants to know what ethical obligation his email readers have when confronted with this request for confirmation that they have read his email.

"It seems to me that from an ethical perspective if you are going to read the email you should acknowledge that simple act with an affirmation to this confirmation request," he writes. But he acknowledges that human nature probably causes people to believe that it really does not matter since the confirmation could be considered a reply which is their option and their choice.

His question seemed clear enough: Do recipients have an ethical obligation to click and send back requested read email receipts?

But as I was reading his email, sure enough, a box requesting me to click on it to confirm receipt of his email popped up on my screen. It seemed the reader had embedded a challenge as well as a question. His test was whether or not I would click on the box so he would know I received the email.

I did. But you are under no ethical obligation to do so.

Simply because an email writer clicks on this feature does not obligate the rest of us to take the time to use it. Some might not want to engage the original sender any further than his initial email and believe by sending the receipt they might send the wrong message that they wish to continue the conversation.

Many others might simply find that requested receipt feature to be a nuisance. (Of equal curiosity is the use of the "urgent" classification of an email that is accompanied by a red asterisk. I have yet to receive one of those that required any sense of urgency.)

There is no accepted practice among email users that every request from an unknown sender must or should be honored. It might annoy the sender that recipients don't comply in the manner he would like, but annoyances don't always translate to ethical transgressions.

Still, as a courtesy to a reader I clicked on the box and returned the read receipt. I also responded within a few minutes of his initial email's arrival and asked the sender a handful of questions. As of six days after my email was sent, I've received no response. 

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(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


drostbr said...

I'm not sure that this is necessarily a simple case of ethics -- technology plays a role in this as well. Depending on the type of software or even the server that one is using to open an e-mail, it is possible that the e-mail reader is not even presented with the read receipt option. For example, my network settings at my office prevent me from responding to read receipts---meaning that I never get a pop up box, etc. The settings for this option are completely turned off and it is not something I even have control over. It is viewed by the IT department as a way for the organization to cut down on spam.

Anonymous said...


This is far more a question of etiquette than ethics. The answer turns more on the relationship between the sender and recipient. Barring an employment or family relationship which might create a duty to respond to the email (or atleast mark it as read) then the recipient has NO duty to respond to the annoying popup. If a coworker made such a comment to me, I can assure you that he would see NO response from me again.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

An E-mail is a message. Not a note from the Gestapo. What are these people thinking????

Carl White said...

I am guessing that his response rate is low because his colleagues look at his "information" and "relevant news" as spam.
They do not want to offend him by telling him, "hey dude, quit sending me this crap", and are hoping if they never acknowledge getting his eMails that he will quit sending them thinking they are not getting them.

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