How to force people to send you emails you’ll actually answer

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Developer Mattan Griffel penned a fantastic guide to writing emails that busy people will actually respond to. Briefly, his guidelines are to keep it (very) short, format for readability, be specific about what you’re asking for, be reasonable in your request, and demonstrate that you’re worth answering.

While Griffel’s guide might help you get an answer to your next email to someone important, it won’t solve the problem of how to convince others to treat your time with the same respect.

But what if there were a way to enforce good email etiquette?

The solution, or at least a partial solution, is called Shortmail. It’s an app out of a tiny, Baltimore-based startup called 410 Labs, and its premise is exceedingly simple: Shortmail only accepts emails that are 500 characters or less.

Sometimes the right solution is technological.
Sometimes the right solution is technological.
Image: Shortmail

That’s three and a half tweets long. Or almost twice the length of this sample email from Griffel, which he holds up as a model of the form:

Hi Mattan,

I just saw your “How to Teach Yourself to Code” talk from Internet Week but noticed it was recorded almost two years ago. Does your advice in the video still apply?

If so, can I use a Chromebook or will I need something with a more traditional OS?

It turns out 500 characters is plenty of space to communicate any actionable request. And if it’s not, you really shouldn’t be conveying your request by email at all.

Shortmail politely informs those who send you emails at your account when they’ve exceeded the 500 character limit. Just as usefully, it can integrate with Gmail, and only pulls in emails that are 500 characters are less.

The hard part about good email etiquette is that most people have yet to get the memo—short and to the point isn’t just the best way to get a response, it’s also rude to send anything else, since we’re all suffering from information overload. But with tools that actually enforce limits, perhaps we can drive a cultural shift by just saying no to emails that violate these simple rules.

There’s one other thing Shortmail makes possible: Public email addresses. Spam isn’t much of an issue when everything over 500 characters is bounced. Here’s mine: