What People REALLY Think When You Don’t Reply to Their Email

The new trend in email management lately is to simply delete what you don’t wish to reply to, thus effectively ending any conversation before it even begins.

You know. It’s sort of like getting a letter from a relative who pissed you off last year at Christmas and showing him that you are still holding a grudge a year later, so you toss his letter into the trashcan.

Or this:

Your neighbor comes over to complain about the loud noises you and your wife were making last night. While his lips are moving you’re just staring at him, then decide that you don’t want to continue the conversation so you shut the door in his face.

Or turning out the lights and pretending the next day when he stops by your cube at work that you never heard him knocking. “No no. I never got your email. Can you resend it? The Junk Email Fairy ate it.”

If you really, truly want a reply to it, no email should be more than six sentences long. Really. Otherwise you may as well start the subject line with “OKAY TO IGNORE”.

Let’s get this out of the way right now. If your boss is one who tells you, “No no – Don’t use the phone to talk to the client, send it by email so we have a record of it!” Guess what? Go to Google, look up the phrases, “Commercial Litigation” and “Email Discovery Process”, “What we have to deliver to the Plaintiff” then “Corporate Email Archiving Policy”.

So what do people REALLY think when you just delete their email? What might you unintentionally be projecting?

Here’s what they think. And I’ve even conveniently broken it down by Role:

The Salesman Pitching You – “He’s just really behind on his email, so I’m going to continue to follow up six to seven times by email and maybe three or four phone calls until he tells me he’s not interested.” For God’s sake – put him out of his misery and just take 0.2 seconds to reply: “Not interested. Thx.” (Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m NOT suggesting that anyone reply to spam. That’s a completely different article entirely. But for God’s sake – if a 0.2 second, 3 word email reply is going to put the guy out of his misery so he can move on and save you the pain of receiving an additional 6 followup emails and calls, the math is in your favor…)

The Friend – “Did I piss him off at the Christmas party? Why is he mad at me?”

The Good Friend – “He’s just a non-confrontationalist. It’s not his fault. That’s just who he is. He doesn’t want to get involved in anything.”

The Manager – “Have I really hired someone so incompetent that they cannot use the medium of choice for our office? What was I thinking? Should I be having second thoughts about replacing this person? Why is this person CC’ing me on every other message they send out? Why do they feel the need to cover their ass? What is the root cause of this CC Madness? Do I need to hire someone with more confidence? Or has our own corporate environment created a Culture of Paranoia?”

The Team-Member – “Are we being led by an idiot savant or just an idiot?”

The CEO – “Dammit. Nobody’s replying to my email. Get me Tim in IT right NOW. Hello Tim? Listen. We need to block this Facebook thing here at the office. People are spending waaaay too much time on it and it’s cutting into our overhead. Nobody’s replying to my email because they’re too busy spending time on Facebook.”

The Cyborg Anthropologist – “I completely understand why nobody is replying to my email. Email is so 1999. The volume of email being sent now is simply so high that it’s literally impossible for recipients to be both gainfully employed AND spend the time needed to reply to each inbound message; and really, not every message deserves a reply.”

My point here is pretty simple folks: Email is Broken.

It’s broken for two reasons, one of them is Technological, the other is Human. Both are fixable.

And NONE of the social media shiny ball tools will replace email, in spite of their overinflated valuations or how many times Mark Zuckerberg can exponentially fold a single piece of paper over and over for investors. Sorry.

Email is broken from a Technological standpoint when I send a legitimate 1:1 communication to a friend and the recipient’s system mistakenly labels it as Spam (Junk Mail) and shunts it to the Black Hole or the Junk Mail folder, which nobody has time to check anymore – either way, it doesn’t reach the intended recipient.

It’s like paying for Playboy and having the postman decide that I shouldn’t be reading it, so they toss it in my trash can curbside instead of delivering it to me and letting me make that determination. Even worse though, if that legitimate communication was about a business deal, I may have just lost $10,000 because of an overly excited spam filter named after a fish with teeth.

Email is broken from a Human standpoint when I send you a legitimate 1:1 communication and you miss it because so many other people are sending you long, actionable email messages that have nothing to do with YOUR Task List and everything to do with THEIR Task List, that you’re days behind on your “mail”.

The other half don’t truly understand email but they have a deep fear of speaking with their mouth over the telephone, so they use email similar to how one might use instant messaging, creating an ungodly volume of superfluous messages for you. By the time you do get to my message, you’re either too embarrassed to reply to me for fear I’ll think you’re an idiot and that you can’t effectively manage your own email; or, you opt to just delete it and have me make one of the assumptions listed above. Your call.

Why won’t Twitter replace email?

Really? REALLY? You really have to ask that question? How old are you – like 22?

Can you really, honestly picture a corporation sending business correspondence that is indexed instantly by Google, limited to no file attachments and constrained to 140 characters? What have you been smoking?

So if email is broken – and trust me, it is very, VERY broken; what will replace it?

In our lifetime, it may take years if not decades to replace the system that was originally designed to allow the military to communicate in a post-nuclear-war world. The irony of all of this – the irony is that email was originally designed to be the most reliable form of communicating after the most devastating event known to man; and yet now, some decades later, the most-asked-question at cubicles everywhere is this: “Hey, did you get my email?”

Of course I did. If you sent it, I got it. I didn’t reply to it because today is Friday and I’m not doing email on Fridays. Or you weren’t important enough to reply to. Or I just don’t have my shit together. Or – and this is most likely it – did actually look at it, but it was so F’ing long that it looked like it was going to take me longer than two minutes to read or act on, so I closed it for “Later” and went on to see if the next message was more exciting. Or shorter.

And I think you and I both know that “Later” never happens when the Fire Hose has no “Off” switch.

Regardless of what you think of me, I shall continue to Not Reply to your email until you unfriend me on Facebook or unfollow me on Twitter.

Train your people. Train your boss. Limit the people you engage with. Use the phone.

When I was growing up boys actually had to talk to girls USING THEIR MOUTHS.

It was REALLY SCARY. Especially when you had to talk to the girl’s MOTHER with YOUR MOUTH before you got to talk to the girl. But it really separated the men from the boys.

Maybe what we’re really missing here is …a License to Drive Email, complete with training and an exam!

Or maybe we should stop being afraid of using our MOUTHS to communicate by telephone!

When did people start being so afraid of talking?

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About Adam Boettiger

Practicing digital minimalist living in Portland, Oregon. I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with email. I write as often as I can, enjoy reading and also love to scuba and skydive. Content on this site is opinion only and subject to this site's Terms & Conditions. Twitter: @minimalism and @adamboettiger

  • Ed

    Adam, great to see you posting again. I agree it is amazing how often we see people avoid that 2 minute phone call that would get a quick answer, clear up some confusion, and get us moving along with our life. But I also admit I am one who thinks it is so much easier (in my mind but not necessarily reality) to just type a quick email and move on to something else. Not sure how we re-learn some old habits that actually worked better!.

  • Dane Madsen

    Nailed it … however, you have forgotten the contributing factor to email irrelevancy: Boobs. Not that I have any objection to them, but the friends that have so little going on emailing me pictures of them, instead of seeing them live, got so annoying I had to politely ask for them to stop – then sternly tell them I would be assigning their address to spam so do not send me anything important.

    The reality, in the new normal, I prefer a phone call from people that want to propose something to me. A simple email asking for a time and place is good, but let’s have conversation. The decades of order taking are done, value must be demonstrated for value to be assigned, and none of that can happen in Tweets/email/status updates/or (remember this) IM.

    What? You mean the iPhone is also a phone? What are you like, over 50?

  • Mister K

    I came across this page because nobody was replying to anything I wrote on Facebook. So I decided to ask google why nobody was replying, it brought me here. You have made me feel bad about myself as a person. I don’t like communicating with my mouth, because there are nasty people that are very judgemental, there is no room for error, no time to think. On the internet, I have time to think about how to comminicate what I need to say. It’s not about “being a man” it’s about  taking a more considered approach to what you wish to say rather than these people who go around on auto-pilot blurting any old garbage from their gob. 

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    Hey Mister K: This article is about the Non-Reply. It’s not about “The Delayed, Considerate Reply”. I fully agree with you, but you’re missing the boat. There’s likely a reason why nobody’s replying to you on Facebook that has nothing to do with who you are and everything to do with how many “Friends” your “Friends” have. Are you getting 1/5000th of their Attention? Or 1/100th? It makes a HUGE difference! The purpose of this article was not to make you feel bad. It was to simply call attention to the fact that the Non-Reply has emerged as a way that people have started using to manage their Overload of information, be it Social Media, Facebook, Email – whatever. And it is meant to make them understand that people WONDER WHY and sometimes ASSUME or MIS-ASSUME why they did not get a reply back. I hope this is now clear. :o )

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4C7JME3EUFKYNGKEUV5GRMV3VY rudyj

    Hello, I like your article. There is absolutely no reason why people should not open personal email especially on a social network where it is easily sorted (friend / non friend) – it’s just the courteous thing to do, although I’m English and those are just my manners talking charge. 

    Tweeting and texting are not alternatives due to the message limit and the fact that mobiles are intended for brief, on the fly communications. I don’t expect a response from a tweet or text for days on end because that is the nature of the mobile lifestyle – the phone always rings at the most inopportune moments yet we still carry them about.
      
    If you ask 20 habitual offenders, you will get 20 different reasons why THEY think that opening email is not worth it – which suggests that it is a matter of personal discipline more than a technical one. Not to be cold but there is your litmus test for reliability and competence. Now look at the lives of those who routinely skip past checking their inbox – does the stereotype jive? If you are a person who regards email as a means of proper communication and you have friends and colleagues who feel otherwise…..It looks like you have a bit of a spring clean in order.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Adam, great article. One aspect that came to mind is this: I am kind of out of the dating game nowadays and don’t know the status quo, but there was a time when a guy would make an appointment with a girl, she’d agree and then simply neither cancel nor show up, leaving the poor sod sitting and waiting, wasting his time. I mean, miseducated, spoiled brats. I wonder how much of not responding to email is simply to do with foul manners and deficient upbringing. Like the judge in ‘bonfire of the vanities’: “decency is what your grandma taught you. People, BE DECENT”.

    I tend not to agree with your notion of 6 sentence emails. Some things are not as simple as that and I have to be able to expect from a professional adult to have more attention span in them than a common fly. How is anyone going to read an Arthur Miller or Salinger if they can’t concentrate for more than six sentences. Like on page 14: “Crap, who was this Caulfield guy again now? This story is sooo confusing - where is my iPhone? ”

    Although I do agree, if I get lenghty emails, usually first thing I do is call the sender and asking for the gist and most relevant points verbally. Otherwise completely agree. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NB5F7GHWTNWIXEJILSR3H6GIQU zibuki

    Interesting article, but I would like to help clarify some things in this sentence:

    “In our lifetime, it may take years if not decades to replace the system
    that was originally designed to allow the military to communicate in a
    post-nuclear-war world.”

    This perpetuates i) the myth that the internet was a military network designed to survive a nuclear attack, and ii) the myth that email was designed as part of that. The internet was not a military network designed to survive a nuclear attack:

    http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/369490/top-ten-internet-history-myths

    It’s an easy myth to believe, and as a professional software engineer for over 30 years, I have a few professional colleagues that still throw up that myth occasionally.

    As far as email goes, email systems were developed as early as 1965 for use internally by MIT, and were developed in several other places as well, separately from any ARPANET work. The first email sent over the ARPANET was in 1971, and the email message formats in use today over the itnernet weren’t established until many years later. Again, still not designed for the military, still not designed for communication in a post-nuclear world. I worked at a college in 1982, and installed the first email system they ever had. It was not ARPANET based, but you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the user interface and our messages from modern emails unless you examined the technical structure of the messages themselves.

    By the way, there is a great infographic about the history of email here:

    http://mashable.com/2011/05/05/past-present-future-email-infographic/

    As far as the rest of the article goes, I would only add that I think we are approaching an interesting place. Many people are saying that their time is wasted in meetings, and would prefer to get email or text messages. Many people, sometimes part of the same group that hate meetings, are proud to say how long it has been since they spoke on the telephone, and how they really only use their phones for text messages (I even know many managers in their 50s that brag about this), many going so far as to call telephoning someone “rude” because it is now seen as a demand to talk to someone right now, and interrupting them. I know some teenagers and people in their twenties think of email as an “old persons” medium, and do everything by text messages, of one kind of another (including Twitter). But, as you point out, a lot of business can’t be conducted by text message.

  • http://www.digitalminimalism.com/ Adam Boettiger

    zibuki – Interesting times indeed!

    Adam

  • Mariano

    Another rant about emails.  I suppose you are very well aware that one can write an equally effective rant against the phone.  Many people like chit-chatting inanely. Arguably, email is much less of a time-waster than the phone.  At the office, most of the time I pick up the phone I end up regretting.  Not sure I understand your point about having written records being bad.  After 40, you have trouble remembering stuff, and I go back to my email all the time to review where things were or to understand what people are talking to me about.  And since email software has a search feature, it takes very little to recover things.  Yes, enormous amount of garbage piles up, but the cost of storing electronic garbage is getting asymptotically close to zero, so not a big problem.  So, yes, there are many inefficiencies related to the use of email, but I will never buy that talking on the phone is better.

  • Ken

    Email is important – especially at work. There’s no denying it and those who refuse to embrace it will only find themselves at the center of a firestorm of hate from their fellow colleagues.

    It’s more about training on email etiquette. As you mentioned, things should be kept short and succinct but ramblers with the need to be heard often don’t know how to cut down.

    Accountability is extremely important at work and love it or hate it email is a good medium for it – especially come internal audit time when you need to produce evidence that you actually have been compliant on a project.

    It really doesn’t take that long to respond to an email (i.e. “I’ll get back to you” then flag unread). Most don’t even require a response. And if you set the tone with consistent terse replies, people will eventually see that as being part of your character. Being perceived as rude at work isn’t the worst… it’s being perceived as inefficient that kills.