Solving the Mystery of Unanswered Emails

Solving the Mystery of Unanswered Emails
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Why you should care

Because we’re all wondering if we should have used that exclamation point. 

Email was once so fresh it was the central theme of a ’90s cult-classic love story. These days, You’ve Got Mail feels more anxiety-inducing thriller than rom-com. But the feeling of angst, wondering when the human on the other end of the keyboard will write you back, has gotten only worse, not just because of the deluge factor and the multiple inboxes, but also because there are so many other ways to, ugh, “stay connected” (we’re looking at you, Slack).

Now, though, thanks to a new study of 16 billion emails by researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, we know that email answers aren’t so mysterious at all. The researchers found that:

You can predict how and when someone will respond to your emails by age, device and time of day.

The study, “Evolutions of Conversations in the Age of Email Overload,” is the largest examination of email to date. Farshad Kooti, the lead researcher and a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at USC, says the predictions are “pretty accurate.” For example, the average response time increases with age. For teens and millennials, it’s just 13 and 16 minutes, respectively, while people over 51 took nearly their age in minutes to write back. And it’s true: People respond faster on phones than on laptops by almost two times. The findings have “direct empirical implications,” says Kooti, and could change how inboxes are organized.

Perhaps the most significant “psychological contribution” of the study shows the way different generations cope with cascading flows of emails. For younger people, the more email they get, the shorter and faster they respond. Older people, on the other hand, usually keep their responses the same length, but end up answering fewer emails. So if you really want your grandma to email you back, try figuring out when she’s at inbox 0 before hitting send.

But there might be one big thing lacking from the study because of privacy concerns: the content of the emails. That means the researchers are treating all emails equally, in what Keri Stephens, associate director for the Center for Health Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, calls the study’s “biggest drawback.” For example, you’re more likely to respond instantly to a question your boss might have than to, say, an email from your great Aunt Sue, whom you’ve never met. Or a note your best friend sent versus that alumni email asking you to donate just $5.

So, if you want to get someone’s attention and ensure you get some more email, watch the clock. We can feel a You’ve Got Mail remake coming on …

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