The 5 Rules of Email Amnesty

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From Steve Faktor’s original article on LinkedIn.

When it comes to answering emails, most business people are a bipolar mess. On one hand, we’re baking Ex-Lax brownies for a growing list of deadbeat non-responders. At the same time, we’re full of guilt over our own email impotence. Either way, resentment is mounting. I’m happy to report that we can treat Email Deadbeat Syndrome (EDS) and save our crumbling reputations. But that’s not all. We’re also about to get a shiny new holiday – without losing a single dignitary to tainted brownies.

Excuses, Excuses

Whether you bumped into an old friend or a stranger eager to “pick your brain” about their startup, the outcome was the same – a doomed exchange of business cards and good intentions. It hardly matters that this deadbeat works in the same office or uses the same dog-walker. The only way you’d get this slacker to press ‘send’ is if you kidnapped his Chihuahua and emailed the ransom note. (I do not endorse this message.)

Occasionally, this trail of loose ends and empty promises results in a belated “Sorry Email”. It arrives long after that introduction you requested could have saved your business, marriage, or missing vanity dog. The typical response usually starts with: “Sorry, things got so busy at [work/school/Turkish prison]…”. Sometimes, it’s the truth. More likely, that person doesn’t have the guts or decency to confess the real reason. Lucky for you, I don’t have this problem.

The 10 REAL Reasons They Didn’t Respond

  1. You fell through the cracks of their staggering relationship bloat. We’re connected to too many people. Our furry ancestors had a dozen furry friends. A business person in the 50’s had 20-30 relationships. Today, between LinkedIn, Twitter and real life, you’re nursing hundreds (if not thousands) of marginal, superficial relationships. Most people haven’t gotten that prioritization right. The success of your email relies on you catching them between Celebrity Rehabarticles and an urgent voicemail from their therapist.
  2. They’re suffering from a self-inflicted “busy trap”. It’s a witches’ brew of self-importance and “hyper-success-ism”. Even their kids have calendars! You know what I had on my calendar as a kid? Peanut butter stains.
  3. What you sent isn’t that important to them. They’d rather spend that time posting recipes to Pinterest that no one will ever read or use.
  4. Status. There is a mismatch between the perceived status of the hunter (emailer) and the prey (recipient). If they’re wired for status, the recipient deems you unworthy – or unlikely to further their own interests in the future.
  5. You’re creating extra work without making it clear what’s in it for them.
  6. There’s been no progress on that thing you asked for. Whatever it is, assume it’s not done – or worse, it burned down.
  7. They chose someone (or something) else instead of the masterpiece proposal in the last email you “crafted”. (When exactly did writing email become a “craft”??)
  8. They’re procrastinating. They’re waiting for that perfect day when they catch up on every email, write the Great American Novel, and become the next Oprah.
  9. They’re just not that into you. Consciously or subconsciously the thought of missing Dancing with the Stars to spend time with you sickens them.
  10. You have weak bonds If you have few friends or colleagues in common, there’s nothing is at stake – no sense of communal obligation.

A Modest Proposal: The 5 New Rules of Email

So what’s the answer? Basically, we need to lighten up and change our expectations. Most importantly, we need to call a truce by forgiving all delinquents – even if that delinquent is us.

1. Forgive: Let’s declare January ‘Email Amnesty Month’, inspired by Nelson Mandela’s forgiveness campaign. It’s when we respond to all those orphaned messages and schedule those fledgling reunions. No apologies. No judgments. No questions asked. And definitely no retribution by subscribing people to adult newsletters. It’s a time to forgive, forget, and be thankful to have that person in your life – even if it’s not on your terms.

2. Motivate your recipient to see what’s in it for them. This is especially important for people you don’t know well or need a lot from. Some ideas:

  • Most people like to feel wise and wanted. Humbly appeal to that need. It fuels their self-worth and makes them feel important enough to want to help you.
  • Explain how this could lead to a future relationship, a lucrative deal, or enhance their life (or business). Be gentle with this one. Pile it on too thick and it’s like posting photos of yourself draped over sailboats, Ferrari’s and supermodels – on
  • Appeal to them on the strength of a mutual relationship. They don’t feel obligated to you, but they might to that other person.
  • Show that you are flexible and that they can have a meaningful impact.
  • Be succinct and keep emails light. If it reads like a lot of work, then it is a lot of work. It will ruin your chances of getting a response.

3. Follow up: Because email is part of an information tsunami, let’s make it a habit to send polite, low-pressure follow-up notes. Use humor (if you know how), but give it two weeks. Presume they were sincerely busy, lost track, or the dog ate their keyboard.

4. Scope the urgency/importance: Let’s assume only self-haters won’t answer emails that are urgent or important to them. So recipients must learn how to judge how important or urgent an email is to the sender. They can use my homespun chart as a rough guide. It’s broken into 4 quadrants:


  • Critical – this could range from a health emergency to potential loss of a client to accidentally dyeing yourself pink before a big presentation.
  • Tactical – these are usually smaller tasks that just need to get done. Could be booking tickets for a business trip, submitting an expense report, or anything that will eventually make someone look bad.
  • Strategic – you have more time here. Even though it’s important, a measured, thoughtful response is expected.
  • Social – The Olive Garden promises to never run out of pasta or bread sticks. You’ll survive.

5. Exclude: Not everyone needs to be copied. Only doers and decision-makers need to chime in. So if someone is going to hold things up, don’t let it be an underling with an opinion and lots of time on their hands.

Now what?

Be sure to email this article around; this holiday isn’t going to make itself. Email Amnesty Month needs a movement, a declaration from Congress, or maybe a small propaganda film.

Let me know your ideas in the comments below….and don’t forget to subscribe to my future articles here.

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