The (Damaging) Power of Silence

There are many strategies for dealing with an overfull inbox, not all of which are helpful to the person who sent the email. I have weeks where I feel more or less on top of things and other weeks where too many slip through the cracks. Then I find myself, weeks later, sending an email saying ‘I do apologise for not replying sooner but….’ After that beginning I can try to find some plausible excuse along the lines of the dog ate my homework. However, these days I tend just to say ‘I’m afraid it got lost in my inbox’, which is usually the truth. Along these lines, I was amused to read a decade-old post of mine about constantly living on the edge of chaos, along with all its comments, which was complemented by the next post about the importance of knowing when to say no.

However, there is another way to deal with an overfull inbox, particularly when some of the emails are tricky or embarrassing to answer. That is to do absolutely nothing. Silence. Ignore the email, either as a deliberate strategy or in the hopes that if you don’t reply the whole problem will go away. Although I can’t say I have never used this strategy occasionally (but I hope not often), when someone does this to me in reverse, I find it intensely annoying. There was the time when I wrote to a colleague in Cambridge pointing out that the way he kept patting me on the arm through a dinner wasn’t particularly a problem for me at my advanced age, but might be regarded as totally inappropriate by a student. When no response was received, I felt strongly enough to send it again, to which I eventually received the reply ‘Athene, I got your email the first time.’ That was all. A totally inadequate response, but of course my original email had fallen into the ‘tricky or embarrassing to answer’ category. At least I felt I’d tried, not been complicit in letting bad behaviour go unremarked.

However, there are persistent offenders who simply do not answer when a direct question is addressed to them. If a PhD student asks ‘can I have access to your equipment?’ and you choose not to reply, where does that leave the student (or indeed their supervisor, if it gets escalated to them)? If an administrator tries to convene a meeting to discuss space utilisation, and the key professorial (robber) baron doesn’t acknowledge the email, let alone confirm a possible time to meet, how can space be fairly allocated? In both these cases, there is a power imbalance implicit in the situation, and a senior professor can get a long way by ignoring emails they would prefer not to answer. It is a very difficult situation to resolve, particular when someone is a long-term offender who hogs equipment, space etc but is never prepared to engage in a dialogue. Sadly, I have seen this situation (appropriately modified to any particular departmental situation) more times than I care to recall.

It is, of course, a form of bullying. Bullying by default. In my experience this passive sort of bullying is just as damaging to the local culture as anything else. If someone lower in the food chain tries similar behaviour, there tends to be recourse. If a PhD student silently but implicitly refuses to let another student use equipment, in principle (although in my experience most reluctantly) escalation through their supervisor may resolve the issue. It may not, however, lead to any sort of sanction being applied to the student in question, who then learns they can get away with being obstructive. They may anyhow have learnt this bad behavioural trait from their supervisor.  There is no doubt that students learn ‘acceptable’ behaviour from those around them; badly behaved supervisors can perpetuate a pattern of poor behaviour indefinitely.

To me, silence in these sorts of situation, including email, is a form of passive-aggressive behaviour that can be hugely damaging to an individual and a community. The one-off ‘oops’ moment, the email that slipped through the net inadvertently, the one put off and off because a reply is tricky until ultimately it vanishes from consciousness, that’s one type of failure. (Sadly, I would guess most of us have sometimes fallen into that trap; most certainly I have and usually with deep embarrassment when I realise this has occurred.) But, the repeat offender who thinks this is a good way to get on in the world is destructive to those around them, even if sadly it appears to be a constructive way to get on for the guilty party. It is , however, just one of the multitude of ways that enables a toxic culture to be built up, and one that is extremely difficult to unpick.

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