The Sound of Silence

There is the blissful silence away from email because you are lounging on a warm beach somewhere (or up a cold and wet mountain, according to taste) with your smart phone resolutely turned off. But the silence only lasts as long as your resolution lasts, before the hideous sounds or noisy vibration of your phone kicks in. But that isn’t quite the sort of email silence to which I’m referring. I am referring to one that will have had a direct snail mail equivalent, in which the silence is an absence of a response.

Recently I saw a plaintive appeal for a word to be coined to describe the ‘emails that are so important that you leave them until you have time to answer them’, with the corollary that that moment never arrives and slowly they burn a metaphorical hole in your inbox and your conscience. I find, most irritatingly, that the memory of their existence tends to resurface just as I’m about to drop off to sleep. At which point I completely wake up and lie there in a guilty haze of embarrassment. That of course does not help the email to get answered. It doesn’t produce an obvious word or phrase to describe this guilt-inducing email either, but perhaps if some wise guy could come up with such a word then it would help people like me to frame the ultimately, week or more late response. It would explain to the recipient that it really was an important message, and you knew that perfectly well, but its importance in and of itself made a rapid answer impossible.

There is another more toxic kind of silence though. The email sent, say, to a head of department (or supervisor or chair of a committee according to circumstances) requesting a meeting to discuss something close to your heart. Greeted with silence it can be extremely disconcerting. Have you overstepped the mark? Have you stood on someone’s toes? Or are you just so negligible a correspondent within the hierarchy that no response is deemed necessary. You can be ignored. Your request is contemptible and so are you. Interpreting silence that way can be personally very damaging, even if often your anxious analysis can be extremely wide of the mark – or at least it might be.

Because silence can mean so many things. It can mean you are thought to be a lesser mortal who can safely be ignored. Your anxiety in that case might be justified. It can also mean that the other person is off sick, without having had the opportunity to set up an out-of-office email because it was an emergency appendectomy; or that they wanted to consult with someone else who is at the other side of the world currently and won’t be back for a couple of weeks; or that they are attending a workshop at a military establishment where email contact is forbidden. (I have actually been faced with that specific dilemma when I was trying to get urgent advice and yes, the silence was unnerving.) There are many good reasons for silence, although the judicious use of out-of-office messages should resolve some of them.

But silence, just silence, how are you to know what’s going on? Is the other person giving your request serious thought and then getting side-tracked – as in the first example – or legitimately not at the end of their email but neglected to set up the means of saying so? Or are they, as does indeed occur, actively ignoring you? Playing power games. Making you sweat. That I have also endured. With some characters, those you have a long-running feud with perhaps, such games are all too plausible. Yet, the optimist in me at least always hopes that if I just write again maybe they’ll deign to reply; and then the pessimist in me says that that is just giving them more grist to their ego-inflating mill. So, sitting on the horns of that dilemma I can sit there with a second email ready to go and my fingers hovering over ‘send’, indecisive as to whether a follow-up email will inflame or calm the situation.

This all comes to mind because this week I detected myself guilty of silence in a way post hoc I felt uncomfortable about. No, not the power games version, but the one where I’d forwarded an email and then forgotten completely about the enquiry and enquirer. Unfortunately forwarding an email to a busy and overstretched colleague does not equate to a response. I should have kept track and I hadn’t. I didn’t really know the sender (although technically we had met previously) so I guess it was a bit easier not to keep the original message in mind. In this case, though, the person concerned was made of stronger stuff than some of us. They had been in touch with my PA, who had found a slot when I was around and they simply turned up in my office. They greeted me with ‘I don’t know if you remember my email’ and I had to say I didn’t. But as they explained what it had been about memory did come back. And I remembered that I had actioned it to the extent of forwarding it. I didn’t have the honesty to say so, or at least the conversation had moved on before recollection returned.

I hope in the end my visitor got what advice they wanted from me. The moral is, I suppose, don’t let silence stop you in your tracks. Don’t let the lack of a reply get you down. There may be perfectly innocent reasons. Or there may not be. You’ll never know if you don’t keep trying. Some people out there are jerks, but not all of them. Some of us are simply overworked.


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6 Responses to The Sound of Silence

  1. Hugh Kearns says:

    Great article. I come across a similar experience with PhD students. They send a draft chapter or piece of writing to their supervisor. And then they wait. And wait. And wait. All the time compulsively checking their inbox waiting for the reply.
    What does the silence mean?
    The supervisor has read it and it is so awful they can’t respond?
    The supervisor can’t bear to read it at all?
    They haven’t read it?
    They never even received it?
    Generally the student will opt for the worst-case scenario.
    As you point out it’s much more likely that the busy supervisor has identified it as important and told themselves “I’ll wait until I have some time to do this properly”. Unfortunately that time doesn’t come quickly or at all.
    Perhaps a solution might be a quick note to say “I’ve got you email. Busy right now but will get on to it”.

  2. Frank Norman says:

    I’ve tried different ways to track emails to make sure I don’t forget to reply but not found a foolproof way yet.

    I have people say they use non-reply as a tactic to prioritise emails. If it’s important then the sender will email again. That’s given me more confidence to chase up when I don’t get a reply.

  3. Bill Harvey says:

    Boomerang for Gmail is useful. Let me guess, the appointment maker was male?

  4. Bill Harvey says:

    Good, encouraging.

  5. Stephen Eichhorn says:

    Good article. We’re too reliant on email. Pick up the ‘phone, go to see the person or make time for the coffee room (where all this used to be sorted out).

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