Technology is meant to connect us. Instead, it often creates feelings of isolation. Such as when there’s no reply to our emails. We don’t care as much when our email to a company’s customer service is unanswered but when we send it to someone we know or an individual we are trying to establish contact with, not receiving a reply leaves us unsettled.
Don’t we encounter silence in a face-to-face situation too? Why doesn’t that unsettle us?
Silence in a face-to-face situation can be awkward too. But it can be resolved quickly by reading the other person’s body language or by simply asking a question. If the question is unanswered, we may still be able to make sense of the silence by using the greetings and the small talk we exchanged (or their lack) that day with the other person.
In the absence of such possibilities in a virtual situation, silence no longer remains as such.
It produces thunder!
We begin to think of all possible reasons behind the silence. In a world where people have constant access to email, we find it very strange and shocking that the receiver has not responded. Distress, feelings of isolation and loss of control, frustration, anger, negative self-appraisal, bad mood, and a host of related effects occur as a consequence of email silence. Damage to one’s relationship with the unresponsive individual is usually not far behind.
Often, these reactions are unjustified. Why? Because it may not be as bad as you think.
Quite often, the other person is very busy or immersed in something else due to which our message is put away for a response later. But then the receiver gets caught up in the daily routine and our message remains unanswered despite good intentions. And we may erroneously conclude that the receiver doesn’t care about us or our email. In a NY Times article about unanswered emails, someone mentioned that she sometimes doesn’t have the time to give a careful response and puts off responding till later. Eventually, time goes by and after some time she feels that she has waited too long and is embarrassed. What does she do? She does not respond! So, you see, you may have not received a response because someone cared too much and not less!
Sure, there are times when things are really wrong because of which there is no response. In a research study, Catherine Cramton found that the US members of a virtual team misjudged the silence of their Portuguese partners after an electronic vote as consent when, in fact, the latter were expressing their disagreement with the chosen idea. You may have someone playing games with you by not responding — that individual may simply be trying to get an upper hand in the relationship with you. Then there are occasions when we are expecting some favor from the receiver of our email and the receiver wants to turn down our request but, instead of embarrassing us, does not respond.
So, there are times when email silence isn’t bad and there are other times when it is. Did someone say that email silence can be confusing?
Can we do something about it?
In virtual teams, we can reduce email silence considerably by drawing up a team compact in which we outline the rules of engagement. These rules of engagement typically cover expectations about email communication, including acceptable delay in responding to emails.
But we experience many situations outside of virtual teams in which our emails go unanswered. How do we deal with such situations?
For that we first need to look at some research. Research by Yoram Kalman and Sheizaf Rafaeli on response latency in electronic communication indicates that about 80% of responses get posted within the average response time and 97% of the responses get posted within 10 times the average response time. This is true for responses in various kinds of computer-mediated communication systems, including email and group discussion forums. Using the Enron email dataset, the authors found that the average time to respond to an email was about 29 hours. If we assume that this figure applies elsewhere too, then there’s a 80% chance that your email will get responded to within 29 hrs. Even if it does not get responded to within this time, there’s still about a 17% chance that your email gets will get responded to within another 11 days. After that, assume that the silence is for good.
Thus, research suggests that we wait for about 12 days before taking action for lack of response to our email. Of course, to the extent our email is time sensitive, we would need to act before that. Also, we need to be sensitive to individual differences. For some individuals, the average response latency may be more or less than the 29 hours we have assumed. To the extent we know enough about someone’s email behavior, we would need to adjust for that too. One recourse when we encounter silence might be to resend the email if we believe that the receiver may have simply forgotten. When we are uncertain, research suggests that a more effective action might be to make our request via another medium, such as the phone. For very critical emails, I have found it to be effective to let the recipient know that I would be following up by a certain date to see if there is any part of my email or request that needs additional clarification. If I don’t get a response by the follow up date, I call (or, if possible, stop by the persons office) to check if there are any questions or issues I can address. If there are any bad news, they come out during that call (or visit).
If none of the above actions work, don’t let the silence get the better of you. If you are seeking something very critical from the unresponsive person, figure out another way to get it. Else, it may be time to move on. If a response comes out of the blue in the future, as it sometimes does, count it as a blessing!