Read receipt is a bad idea

In honor of the fact that Facebook is now going to indicate if someone has read a message you’ve sent them (and it’s not optional), I figured I’d write a little rant about read receipt.

So, for those of you who don’t know, many e-mail programs allow you to send an e-mail and request notification when the person in question has read the e-mail.  It sounds like a fantastic idea, right?  “I just sent my boss a very important e-mail about taking a vacation day on Friday and I want to make sure he received it, so I’ll just send a read receipt so I know he’s read it.”

Wrong.  First, some programs can be set up to ask the recipient if they want to send back the read receipt.  So, your boss receives your e-mail, which he happens to be reading in the midst of meeting with someone else and doing a conference call (at least if he’s like my old boss), and a little box pops up “The idiot who sent this has requested a read receipt.  Would you like to send it?”  I always said “no.”  None of your frickin’ business if I just read your e-mail.  If it was that important, get off your ass and come see me in person.  Or call me.  And it was almost invariably an e-mail that was not important enough to warrant a read receipt.

(I actually had a co-worker who used read receipt on every single e-mail he sent to his boss.  Every single one.  For someone who receives hundreds of e-mails a day, it’s not pleasant.)

The second issue is that just because someone read your e-mail doesn’t mean they had time to deal with it right then.  My general process was to read through e-mails as soon as I could, so I at least knew what I was dealing with (and could catch those “fire drill” e-mails that required me to prepare a written analysis in the next thirty minutes).  That didn’t mean that I’d handled an e-mail just because I’d read it.

So, let’s use a writing example here.  You send an e-query to an agent.  She opens the e-mail long enough to confirm that it’s a new query and then throws it into a folder called “queries to read” and moves on with her day.  Maybe she reads them every Saturday afternoon.  Maybe she reads them on the third Tuesday of even-numbered months.  Who knows?  Chances are she doesn’t read them right that moment.  You get a read receipt.  You now do the anxious author dance because she’s seen your query and hasn’t yet responded.  Did she like it?  Did she hate it?  What did she think????  NOTHING.  Because, even though she did technically “read” your e-mail, she hasn’t yet read your query.  And, worse, seeing that she “read” your e-mail you may then feel inclined to follow-up with her a few days later with some phrase like, “I see you read my query on Monday and have yet to respond and I was just wondering…”  BAD.  Put yourself in her shoes.  Multiply your little inquiry by fifty for all of the other anxious authors.

(Sorry, I’m working my way through Miss Snark’s blog at the moment and may be channeling agent pet peeves at the moment.  She was not a fan of the too soon follow-up to the query or partial or full.)

So, we’ve covered the first and second issues.  Now for number three.  Some people (like me) who don’t like others all up in their business, use the preview screen to read e-mails.  And delete some e-mails without ever having technically “read” them.  Which can lead to the unfortunate situation where instead of a read receipt you get back a message that the recipient deleted the message without reading it.  Now, if you’re an author who used read receipt and you get back that message, you’re not going to be very happy.  But you could be very mistaken about what actually happened.  Chances are your e-mail was in fact read.  (Why it was deleted is another matter.  If it’s a query, double-check that the agent actually accepts e-queries.  Miss Snark mentioned on her blog that she didn’t and that she deleted any she received without responding.)

This happened at my work.  I can’t remember exactly what it was now, but maybe something like “We have an HR presentation on Monday that all employees are required to attend.”  I made sure the presentation was on my calendar and deleted the e-mail and then got a follow-up from whoever had sent the e-mail about how that was an important e-mail and how dare I just delete it without reading it.  At which point we had to have a little chat about preview screens and read receipt and trusting me to have my shit together, thank you very much.

(And who knows?  Maybe some e-mail programs don’t work exactly like this or don’t anymore.  But chances are there are enough of them out there that do work that way that this all still holds true.  Seriously, say no to read receipt.)

In summary: Read receipt is bad because it annoys the recipient far more than it helps you and it has the potential to creat awkward and painful misunderstandings when you think something was read that was not or that something was not read when it was.

(As a bonus, I was going to post a link here of a very funny article I read a number of years ago about some supposedly new types of cc’s on e-mails, the cc-fu, the cc-cya, and one other I can’t remember.  Unfortunately, when I tried searching for the article I ended up with a lot of porn hits related to tight asses and the f word.  The article was in an e-mail newsletter, so seems it never made it onto the interwebs.  Bummer, because it was funny as hell.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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