The Perils of No Immediate Reply


One of the things that the pervades today’s professional life is using email as the main means of communication – specially true for geographically-distributed teams. In spite of all of its merits, email, like any asynchronous form of communication, has a “perceived latency” issue which if not well understood can be a cause of frustration and friction amongst those involved.

The Problem

How many times have you sent an email to a colleague or coworker expecting a reply, say, within a few hours only to be left waiting for days or even weeks? Unless you can actually see or interact with the intended recipient, you will likely start making up theories as to why the person hasn’t replied to that email – this is a natural thing to do, in my opinion. The issue with that is that as hours or days pass by, those theories become very negative eventually devolving into outrage and resentment.

A notable anecdote happened nearly two years ago at my former place of employment. I had sent a fairly important question to a person in the HR department. Being a Monday I assumed the email would be at least acknowledged within 48 hours. Well, 48 hours passed and no reply or acknowledgment of any sort from this person. I started the vicious cycle of imaginary conspiracy theories ranging from “god dammit this person is so full of themselves they can’t even reply to a question” to “I’m sure silence means ‘NO’ and they don’t have the face to tell me” and every other theory in between. It was literally getting to the point that I was channeling the frustration outwards.

The Intervention

Fortunately, one of my former colleagues who’s a master of appeasement and Zen in the workplace asked me what was wrong. I hastily explained the issue and very calmly he suggested: “have you tried calling them or walking over HR and asking for them?” I was a bit surprised by the simplicity of that suggestion, but, it made sense at a fundamental level. So, after we were done talking, I walked over HR and asked for the person I had sent the email to. Lo-and-behold turns out the person had been hospitalized due to a severe bronchitis and was due to return to the office in a couple days. “Wow, was I wrong?!” was my first thought. Never in the vicious cycle of no-reply theories had occurred to me that the recipient could’ve been indisposed or maybe they never got the email to begin with, or it got mis-filtered or any number of innocuous reasons. Nope. All my theories assumed the worse and got even more negative as time passed by.

The Moral

Email is a very tricky form of communication and should be treated as such. In its apparent simplicity there is a plethora of technical and human “points of failure” that if left unaddressed can and will be the cause of much frustration, friction and needless source of conflict. Unlike other forms of communication, with email the onus of a reply is not and should not be assumed to be on the recipient(s). The onus should be on all participants.

Caveat Emptor

I realize this post isn’t particularly prescriptive, but it is intentionally so. Teams structure, personalities, etc. differ wildly so prescribing a generic solution would likely not be very effective or productive.