Q. May I demand read receipts of people? Do I have to respond to them?
A. Modern e-mail programs include a lot of useful bells and whistles: cc, bcc, forward, request read receipt, etc. It's fine to to take advantage of these features, but it's wrong to take advantage of your correspondents. All of these features have ethical pitfalls. An earlier column discussed cc and bcc; this week we will discuss read receipts.
One of the most frustrating situations for a correspondent, whether a friend or a business associate, is to wait patiently for a reply, when in fact you're not sure the recipient ever got the original communication. Is the person purposely ignoring us? Does he or she need time to consider our request? Perhaps it's just a particularly busy time, or the recipient is on vacation. (Yes, once upon a time, people took vacations from their business correspondence.) Or maybe the letter never got through, or got flagged as "spam" (an increasingly common situation, as the exploding amounts of junk e-mails compel users to use more inclusive filters.)
The makers of e-mail programs provide us with a solution: the "read receipt". When the recipient examines his or her e-mail, a little box pops up asking if the reader is willing to confirm that in fact he or she has read (or received) the message. Result: no more uncertainty on the side of the recipient.
However, this bit of paradise for the sender can be a miniature torment for the recipient. First of all, it's just plain annoying to have all those little pop-ups springing at you, and to have to respond to all of them. More important, sometimes -- often -- we just don't want the sender to know if we're ignoring them, thinking of them, too busy for them, etc. Harmonious relations among human beings often depend on "plausible deniability", keeping some knowledge to ourselves.
The first thing we should know is that there is no general ethical responsibility to respond to these requests. Not every person who sends us email has a right to know if and when we read his or her message. (Of course there are exceptions, which we will mention shortly.) By the same token, it is not always fair to ask for such a receipt. Here is a parallel from Jewish tradition.
The Torah demands that everyone should be truthful, commanding us, "Distance yourself from every false matter." Torah scholars are expected to be even more exacting, holding to the truth even in situations where we could excuse an average person for evasion. But the Talmud tells us that there are some situations where even a Torah scholar is permitted to be evasive: when someone puts him on the spot with an embarrassing and intrusive question. (1) Since read receipts often fall into this category, don't feel obligated to respond to every such request.
This in turn strongly suggests that it is wrong in the first place to put the recipient in such an embarrassing situation. It may come out eventually exactly when the letter was received, and if no read receipt was sent it could cause an awkward feeling. The Torah tells us "Don't oppress each man his fellow" (Leviticus 25:17), and Maimonides explains that this refers to statements which embarrass the interlocutor and to which no reply can be mustered. (2)
The solution is to avoid using read receipts routinely. Before you demand one, ask yourself: Does this person really owe me an answer? Often the answer is yes. If you are the boss, or a customer or supplier with an urgent issue, you will often have a right to put someone on the spot. Parents have the right when it is something relating to their own well-being. And any friend or colleague can occasionally find himself in a situation where he or she really needs help and decide that in this case it is appropriate to impose on someone. As I wrote in a previous column, being ethical doesn't mean we never make demands on other people and never impose on them; Judaism believes in mutual obligations and sometimes we have to insist on these.
But if we consider things carefully, we will probably conclude that in most cases it is most thoughtful to leave off the read receipt and trust the good will of the recipient to respond in a prompt and responsible way. A corollary: when we receive mail we should also respond thoughtfully. If we think the other person is anxiously waiting our answer, then it's best to e-mail a short reply: "I'm really busy right now, I'll take care of your letter when I can give it the attention it deserves"; or, "I'll do my best to get back to you, this is not exactly up my alley"; or, "I'm working on your issue right now, I'll get back to you when I have something to report."
POST SCRIPT: The Jewish Ethicist probably deserves many of the "read receipts" requested of him, since he is not always careful to respond promptly as he recommends. Maybe in light of this column I will take my own advice and get back to people more quickly. I remind my readers that due to the very large amount of reader mail, for which I am very grateful, it is not possible for me to respond to every letter. But I definitely do read every letter, and I assure you that every one contributes to my ethical understanding and to the quality of the column.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 23b; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 262:21. (2) Sefer HaMitzvot negative precepts 251.
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