Could That Email Have Been A Text?

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Dear Miriam,

What are the social norms and reasonable expectations around when to text someone versus when to send an email (or call for that matter)? 


Trying to Get Through 


Dear Trying, 

While there are no hard and fast rules, I recommend thinking about your own preferences when deciding how to contact someone else. If all the possibilities exist on that one device in your pocket, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much, but if you feel yourself reacting in particular ways to different modes, you can use your own reactions as a clue to what might work best for others. 

Here are my personal general guidelines: Texting is for friends and family, informal communications, and when I need specific and time-sensitive information from co-workers. Email is for things that don’t require an immediate response,  as well as requests that may be a bit more formal, and group invitations. I use email when reaching out to someone for the first time, in part because I find needing to identify myself in a text to be inherently awkward, and when someone receives an email from me, they get my name as part of the message. That said, my voicemail says to text me if I don’t answer. (And I never answer.)

Though you mention text and email, don’t forget about Google Chat, WhatsApp, Messenger and probably a dozen other options. After the initial contact, likely but not necessarily by email, if you’re going to continue communicating with someone, you should just ask. “What’s your preferred method of communication?” is fine, as is, “What’s the best way to reach you?” You should then make a note in your contacts so you remember, but reaching out to people in their preferred manner will increase the likelihood of hearing back from them, which is generally considered the point of communicating.

Phone calls are for emergencies, elderly relatives, childhood friends, and insurance companies, plus, of course, anyone who tells you that’s what they prefer. Video calls are for special occasions and grandparents, as well as people with whom you’re extremely comfortable and casual. Whatsapp is for group chats. While I briefly mentioned co-workers above, it’s important to know the norms in your workplace and follow those even when they deviate from your personal preferences. Above all, recognize that with all these different methods, it takes a lot to stay in touch, and both you and the other person have to be willing to put in the effort, otherwise all the options in the world won’t actually help you communicate. 

Be well,