Left on read

More stories from Varvara Makarevich


How many of you have experienced a situation where you write a work or study-related email and get no response? You write another one. Then you leave a voice message. A week later, long after you’ve already resolved the issue yourself without the other person’s help, rarely do you receive an apologies-for-not-being-able-to-respond-in-time email.

I came to journalism from another field where communication is also the key to success: public relations. This is where I learned that you’re supposed to answer any work emails you get and every phone call you receive, no matter how badly you want to skip them. And this is why it surprises me every time I get no response from some people.

In some way every professional – and every student, all of whom could be considered aspiring professionals – is a PR manager for himself. If we adopt this approach, perhaps everyone would take their communication habits much more seriously.

When students fail to consider that they are their own enterprises, they can miss out on opportunities, said business professor Joel Whalen.

“When people fail to communicate, or they communicate ineffectively, they’re essentially building walls around themselves, barriers to growth, to working with other people, and they can isolate themselves,” he said.

Even though students sometimes fail to respond to calls and emails, from my empirical experience it’s often a pattern more common among older people. And there might be a reasonable explanation. Blair Davis, a media and cinema studies professor, says generational habits can play into people’s behaviors.

“Workflow communication tends to fall into different generational patterns in terms of communication in general,” she said. “We tend to use those media that we’re most comfortable with and adopting, adding new medium or any new particular social media platform. The older we get, the less likely we are to want to try, and use, and adopt newer media.”

This means that an older person is more likely to listen to their voicemail than a young person – though it doesn’t mean they will return your call. And the chances that you’ll get in touch with them via Facebook or any other relatively new medium are low.

Bree McEwan, a communications professor, agrees that a generational gap may be one of the reasons people don’t respond to calls.

“We see some generational differences there; people who are used to having answering machines and giving a call back, they’re listening to voicemails and giving a call back,” she said. “Folks who never had an answering machine assume you will reach out in some other way if it’s important.”

Another interesting observation, raised by Davis, is the idea that the more recently a communication channel was invented, the shorter the messages usually are. “We see tons of communication getting shorter and shorter as each generation prefers brevity,” she said.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we should blame the phenomena of not responding to emails solely on habits or age. Paradoxically enough, the technologies that we’ve created to improve and ease our lives often cause us to get lost in a barrage of communication flow.

“Everything is coming through on our personal mobile device. You get your emails, text messages, and voicemails on there,” Whalen said. “Let’s say, you’re waiting for an elevator, you check your email, you see that so and so emailed you – and then you never go back to it.” We do this unintentionally, he says, because by the time we think about a particular email, we’ve already received 10 more and a bunch of text messages to boot.

Whalen says some instances of non-responsiveness can be cracked up to accidents, in which human beings are simply trying to deal with the avalanche of emails that they constantly get. “I think that has to do as much with technology as it does with people’s social behavior,” he said.

The technological side of the problem can be easily solved today.  Option one: time management. Set up a time during the day when you go through all your emails, texts, messages and respond to them. Option two: choose certain forms of communication for certain purposes. Option three: download specific software that allows you to manage and organize your emails.

“People consume emails and briefs differently than they do  other written forms of communication,” Whalen said. “They are not reading these documents word for word, they’re scanning quickly through the document looking for a reason to delete it and then move onto the next one.” And maybe this is why some companies are already shifting their communication channels.

“A lot of companies are recognizing this issue with emailing problems, because they are moving to instant message services,” McEwan said. “And I think this is why you see the rise of services, such as ‘Slack’, which feel more like a messaging service.”

Let’s be honest, sometimes the reason we don’t get a response is very simple: Our message is just not important or engaging enough for the person we’re addressing. That doesn’t, however, mean that anyone should deny anyone else the right to human dignity and respect. A simple “No, thanks” will do. And also, it will save so much time.

Next time you feel you’d rather leave someone’s message or call without a response, imagine finding yourself in the same position – a position where someone else considers you unworthy of even the shortest response.

You wouldn’t like it – would you?