Counting to ten - Column Han van Krieken

Tot tien tellen - Column Han van Krieken

Many parents tell their children, when they’re angry, to count to ten before responding. I can’t remember either of my parents every saying this, and I personally place the advice in the category of quaint aphorisms. As seemingly impossible as its counterpart: Be spontaneous! And yet, it’s true that people these days are responding a lot, and very fast, whether on email, social media, or classical media. It’s no coincidence that these communication channels hardly require any eye contact, and the fact that you don’t have to see your interlocutor is precisely the reason why we feel no need to moderate our response. Would counting to ten work in such cases?

If you take the time to count to ten in a conversation, things quickly become uncomfortable, whether one-on-one or in a group. The same seems to be true on social media: if people don’t respond immediately, we ask them what’s going on. I think it would be better if we stopped doing that, healthier for ourselves, our interlocutors, and society. Of course, there are times when it’s important to be able to reach someone quickly, but I would like to propose a 10-minute, 10-hour, and 10-day rule.

1. Never respond to an email within 10 minutes

Many email programmes use the symbol of an envelope. Now, an envelope is a very useful object, in which you can place a sheet of written text. Envelopes have a thin layer of glue that you can moisten to close the envelope, so your text is safely tucked away where others cannot read it. You can then stamp the envelope, write the address of the recipient on it, and then, thanks to an ingenious system of mailboxes, expect your text to reach the right person in a matter of days. This person will in most cases take their time to read a text that cost you so much effort, and even money. They will carefully consider whether to respond, and if so, through which medium. This process encourages people to think about what they write, and it takes a while to get a response. You might feel some trepidation at the sight of the postman, or run different response scenarios in your mind, but in nearly all cases, you will at some point put yourself in the shoes of the person reading your text.

How different this is from email: fast, free, and unfortunately often thoughtless. I’m afraid there’s no way to make email programmes wait for at least one day before delivering messages, or insert some block that would make it impossible to respond within 10 minutes. Nor is it possible to introduce a fee of 10 cents or so, not for every email sent, of course, but perhaps per recipient. But boy, would it be nice if such things were possible! Here’s what you can do, though: don’t read your emails as soon they come in, but wait until you have some time, and don’t respond immediately, most definitely not within 10 minutes. What a decrease in work pressure that would be! I also suspect it would defuse a lot of tension. Of course some things do require haste: but in such cases, you can always just phone people.

2. Never respond within 10 hours to a media report

The media take great pains to bring us news as quickly as possible, unfortunately often prioritising speed over thoroughness. Nearly everyone, especially at times of crisis, feels the need to follow the news closely. People want to be well-informed. However, not all media reports are correct or comprehensive, and it often takes a while to make sense of them. And yet, we’re increasingly expected to respond to reports without having taken the time to check them properly. Responding immediately is not a good idea; the actual facts are often slightly different than presented, the context can be very significant, and further tracing of the source is essential, as is taking time to think it all through. All this to say that waiting for ten hours or so is far more sensible.

3. Never respond within 10 days to a research report

Luckily, research reports tend to be the result of a thorough investigation and analysis, they contain references and appendices, and they don’t always make for an easy read. Although they usually include a summary, such summaries often lack nuance and depth. Plus, a summary is by definition based on choices about what the researcher or client find important, and they’re aimed at a specific audience. Carefully reading and checking a research report requires a lot of time and attention, and seeing how most of us work these days, this involves some planning. Formulating a good response is also important, and often requires additional research besides the report itself. In view of all this, ten days seems to me to be a reasonable time frame.

Clearly, these rules are not based on epistemological, theoretical, or experimental research. Nor do I plan to slavishly follow them, but I will keep them in mind when responding to things that come my way. I believe this will be good for my blood and work pressure.

Han van Krieken is rector magnificus of Radboud University’s executive board.

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