The Lost Art of the RSVP

Going to vent here today. I’m convinced that the RSVP is becoming a lost art–to the professional and personal detriment of us all.

First, a little French to start your day: RSVP is the acronym for the French term, Répondez s’il vous plaît, literally “Reply if you please” or “Reply please.”

Normally Americans reserve RSVPs for responding to party or event invitations. This is done especially in the case of weddings, where the bride/groom want to know how many people they need to feed. And it’s also just common courtesy, which brings me to the point of this entry.

A lot of “common courtesies” seem to have been kicked to the curb. My primary pet peeve along this line is a refusal to respond to emails, business or otherwise. If I’m contacting someone, I usually expect that they will respond…especially if I’m asking a question. I’m not certain if not responding to email is the result of the person not being available or merely a passive-aggressive tactic to avoid a conversation, but to me it’s a problem. With all the mobile devices we have to access our various channels–reaching someone is rarely an issue anymore. Getting a response is a whole different kettle of fish.

Perhaps I’m more sensitive about such matters because I’ve run a lot of events and many times inquiries related to events are time-sensitive. Yes, I can and do put TIME SENSITIVE in the subject line, but I shouldn’t have to do that.

What’s a reasonable amount of time to respond to an email? Depending on the time of day, I would expect at least an acknowledgement of the message within 24 hours. That’s not expecting too much, is it?

Here are the sorts of things that start galloping through my mind as I wait to see if someone is going to respond to my email:

  • Will they attend the meeting or not? Do I need to reschedule it?
  • Did my email go into their junk folder?
  • Maybe they’re on vacation? asleep? dead?
  • They won’t respond to a simple, friendly message? How rude!
  • Do they not want to share the information with me?
  • If I can’t count on someone to respond to emails promptly, can I trust them with other forms of work?

For whatever reason, we’ve decided as a society that our multiple channels of electronic communications don’t require any sort of etiquette. I believe this is a mistake. As couples who have broken up over a misunderstood text can attest, we should put the same level of thought into our text communications, however immediate. That doesn’t mean writing whole volumes in the style of Jane Austen or Shakespeare. It does mean treating the person who sends you a message the same way you would if you were seeing them face to face. This includes:

  • Responding when someone greets you.
  • Answering a question or, if you cannot answer right away, apologizing for a lack of time or having material on hand, promising to answer within a specified amount of time, and then following up on the response.
  • Letting an individual or group know if a meeting date/time has been changed or cancelled.
  • Letting someone know if you cannot attend an event (unless they specifically ask only for people who ARE coming).
  • Thanking someone for doing something for you, even if that “something” is taking the time to respond.

There are productivity issues involved here, not just good manners. Everyone’s time is valuable, everyone is busy. I get that. Time is lost sending repeated messages, rescheduling meetings, or restructuring whole documents or events because someone didn’t reply to a message in the first place. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s not pretty.

If we’re going to make electronic tools our primary methods of communication, we should put in the same amount of effort to maintain relationships with people on the other end of those messages. If you wouldn’t be rude to someone in person, you probably shouldn’t do so just because you have a tool that makes that behavior easy. If you are willing to be rude to someone’s face, I can’t help you.

And here’s a thought: if you’re not getting an answer via text, that Android or iPhone you carry around also has this wacky calling feature that allows you to speak to another person with your human voice. And don’t forget to say “thank you” when you’re done with the call.

End of rant.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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4 Responses to The Lost Art of the RSVP

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    You kind of hit the nail on the head when you wrote “we’ve decided as a society that our multiple channels of electronic communications don’t require any sort of etiquette.” Except I’d reword that to say “don’t require THE SAME etiquette” as older forms of communication. Our social expectations have changed, and we need to understand that.

    If you want me to respond to your email invitation:

    Try putting RSVP in the subject line. People still know what it means. (I think they do.)

    Only invite me to things I’m likely to be interested in. I get invitations from former students to random meetups, that have been sent to dozens of other people besides me. I’ll probably ignore those.

    Make sure I know who you are. If we’re not already friends, you might need to write “we met at the conference last month” or even “I write the Heroic Technical Writing blog.”

    Without clues like those, I’m afraid I might treat your email invitation as if it were junk mail. Lest you think I don’t remember, or appreciate, the old etiquette, I’m 58 years old. Just saying things are different today.

    • Bart Leahy says:

      Good points. I would say this, though: when you’re writing from a work email address on a work-related manner, and you DO request an answer by a specific date/time, problems arise when there’s still no response. It happens, and it’s frustrating because follow-up becomes a time suck.

      • Larry Kunz says:

        I was thinking more in a personal context when I wrote my first comment. In a business-to-business context, I agree with you that it’s reasonable to expect a timely response. I don’t know why more people don’t recognize this. Maybe it’s because they regard their business email like they regard their personal email. That’s not a good excuse, though.

  2. Ally says:

    “Maybe they’re on vacation? asleep? dead?” That made me laugh out loud! You made some extremely valid points and I fully agree. Unfortunately, common courtesy isn’t at all common in today’s society. Great point that we should treat electronic communication the same way we’d treat speaking to someone in person, it just makes sense. Really enjoyed this post 🙂

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