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One of the many little things I'm proud of is that I respond promptly to email; in other words, I have the virtue of being responsive. That's the idea, anyway; the reality has some nuances.

  • Responding promptly isn't always appropriate; see for example The Rule of Correspondence.
  • Sometimes the response is just a short note to set expectations, something like “I'm too busy to think about that right now, I'll get back to you in a few days”. That may seem like a stupid thing to say, but it's much better than saying nothing. It gives the other party some information, and also gives ver a chance to correct me if the matter is more urgent than I thought. For a bit more about setting expectations, see Happiness.

Being too busy—or being overworked, if we're talking about work—is probably the main cause of being unresponsive, both for me and for other people. Does that mean that my supposed virtue of being responsive is really just the “virtue” of not being overworked? Yeah, pretty much. On the other hand, one does have some control over whether one is overworked, so there's still some virtue there.

I tend to think about being responsive in terms of work, but the idea really does apply to all kinds of email.

Speaking of work and of getting responses, a word of advice: if you send a question to a group of people without naming the one you expect to answer, you are doomed. The recipients will surely all just sit and wait and hope that someone else takes care of it. If you don't know who has the answer, you just have to guess.

So, anyway, we have the words responsive and unresponsive to describe whether someone responds to email, but what if we want to talk about whether someone initiates email? Well, for that we can use the more general words active (proactive) and passive. Then we can look at the combinations! There are three that form a spectrum and one that's rare or maybe doesn't even exist.

  • AR (Active Responsive). Full of energy, a go-getter.
  • PR. A resource, the kind of person who goes to meetings to answer the technical questions.
  • PU. Overworked, or maybe a clock puncher, or someone who lacks self-confidence. I'm sure there are other possibilities too.
  • AU. Maybe the kind of manager who issues directives but can't be bothered to clarify them? Or an unhelpful person who asks questions freely but never answers them?

I try to be active regarding things I'm responsible for, so I'm usually either an AR or PR.

Some notes:

  • Although I described the combinations as if they were personality types, they're really just ways to characterize behavior. Sometimes I'll be feeling lazy, or I'll run into some intractable problem that I just don't want to deal with, and then I'll be a PU. On the other hand, people do have patterns in their behavior, and those patterns could constitute types.
  • Being active regarding things one isn't responsible for is also known as being a busybody!
  • The word “responsible” has the same root as “responsive”, and in fact there's a real connection between the two. If one is responsible for something, one must first of all be responsive regarding it.

Finally, just as the general words active and passive can be specialized to talk about email, so can the (temporarily) specialized words responsive and unresponsive be generalized to talk about other forms of communication and interaction. I probably already gave that away, but I thought it would be nice to spell it out. For some reason, though, I rarely think about being responsive in connection with anything but email. Probably that's because in most other forms of communication you can't get away with totally ignoring people.


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@ July (2013)