I’ve discussed the harmful effects of Online silence, the phenomenon where you send email and no reply arrives for days. Since this phenomenon persists, driven by the endless flood of incoming messages, here are some tactics to apply when you run into it.
- Be proactive. Write your emails to encourage a response – short, to the point, and with clearly marked action items. Make the subject reflect the urgency and the required response: “Can you send me the financial summary by the Tuesday staff meeting?”, not “Staff”. If the mail is fast to read and process, the response is far more likely to be swift.
- Wait. If you get no reply, you need to decide wisely how long to wait before taking further action. Wait too long and your work will suffer; be too hasty and you’ll come across as a nuisance, with equally adverse results. The optimal time to wait depends on the situation – who your recipient is, how busy they are, what your relationship is, and in particular, what action is required at their end. If you asked someone to do some lengthy work for you, you can’t rewrite them the next day: it’s obvious they’ll need a few days to find the time!
- Resend. Once the time has elapsed that you deem appropriate, you can resend your message. Prefix the previous subject with RESEND: , in capitals, to make it stand out; most people may respond more readily if they realize their guilt. Add to the body a polite one-liner, whether “Still awaiting your response…”, or “I really need this by <date>”, or simply “?? : )” and sign “Thanks, <yourname>”. Keep this short and lighthearted, matching the tone to your relationship with the recipient.
- Phone. Either after the resend fails to elicit reaction, or in its place, pick up the phone and call. If you get the guy in person, that’s best; if not, you can leave a message pointing them to your email – note that many people have faster turnaround for voice mail than for email processing. And with the persistent caller ID that is becoming ubiquitous on cellphones, just calling and getting no reply may cause the person to see that you called and call you back.
- Get help. Assuming the recipient is in a remote location, try to find someone there who can grab them in person for you – someone more likely to respond to you because they’re less busy, or your friend, or because it’s their job – like the recipient’s admin or TA.
- Know when to give up. Sometimes it’s just no use… if the recipient is not a close associate, they may simply choose not to interact with you. The important thing is to identify the point of diminishing returns, and stop trying to communicate. After a couple of resends, it just makes little sense to persist.
One thing is relevant to all these steps – always imagine yourself in your recipient’s shoes. It’s rare that they ignore you out of malice; try to imagine their workload, their daily routine, and where you fit into it. Then optimize your communications to be considerate and effective for the them as well as for you. It’s polite – and it’s effective in eliciting a reply!