There is No Such Thing as an Urgent Email

Once upon a time, a house caught fire. The occupants of the house were understandably concerned and sprung into action. They did what we’re all trained to do in a situation such as this.

They picked up a pen and paper and wrote a letter. “House on fire. Please send help!”

They placed the letter in an envelope and addressed it to the nearest fire station and mailed the letter. They then went back inside with the relief that comes from knowing help is on the way.

My guess is that you think it was irrational to mail a letter when they were in urgent need of help. I fully agree.

Then why do we do the equivalent of this every single day?

When we have an emergency, we have an urgent problem. Urgent problems cannot wait. We need to communicate our request for help and know that it has been received, understood, and acted on.

In emergencies, we need synchronous communication. With synchronous communication (the origins being Latin & Greek meaning “together (syn-) in time (chrono-)”) the communication happens in real-time.

In other words, you have a two-way communication where the person sending a message knows that it has been received by the other party, and there can be a dialog.

When we call emergency services and get a live person on the other end of the line, we are having synchronous communication. We know that our call for help has been received.

Face-to-face interactions, phone calls, video calls, and some forms of live chat are synchronous and would be appropriate for urgent/emergency communications.

On the other hand, asynchronous communication (“not (a-) together (syn-) in time (chrono-)”) means that messages are sent and received at different times. Picture a letter being carried by ship across an ocean…with asynchronous communication the sender doesn’t know when, or even if their message will be received.

When we mail a letter, or send an email we are engaged in asynchronous communication.

Synchronous communication works best for urgent or real-time matters. Asynchronous communication works best for matters that are low-urgency or that will require time and thought to create an effective response.

Just like you would never send a letter in the mail and expect an immediate reply, an email cannot be urgent because it is an asynchronous form of comunication.

Communication is what the listener does.

It took me a while to fully understand the significance of the above quote. We generally think of communication from our perspective…from the perspective of the person sending the message.

If we take a sender-centered view of communication, then the communication begins when the message is sent. However, if we take a listener-centered view, then communication doesn’t begin until the listener engages.

You can send messages all you want, but if nobody is on the the other end of the line to receive them, you may as well be putting your messages in a bottle and throwing them into the sea. You are not communicating.

If it is urgent for you to communicate, you haven’t communicated until you know that the person on the other end has received, understood and acted upon your message.

Urgent phone calls are a thing. Urgent discussions are a thing. An urgent knock on the door is a thing. Urgent emails, are not.

The next time you have an urgent issue, suppress your instinct to send an email. It isn’t the right tool for the job. Instead, call the person, go find them, or start a chat (assuming they respond right away). Whatever you do, initiate synchronous communication.

If you still choose to send an email, there is one thing I can guarantee you are communicating: “This issue is not urgent.”