Name the Silence

I’ve mentioned this before, but it never ceases to amaze me — my “most read” post, probably the “most read” thing I have ever written, is a technical piece about the Bcc function in email. Not exactly what I had in mind when I used to dream about being a writer! At any rate, I’m adding a related post today.

Most of the responsible professionals that I know respond to email in a reasonable amount of time. For some, this means almost instantaneously. For others, this means a day or three or even a week. But they are all responsive. They consider replying to email part of their work as effective communicators.

Sometimes, though, even the best email managers receive an email that is important but not urgent in the midst of a stretch of work (or life) where they simply do not have the bandwidth to respond.

In that case, here’s a move I’ve seen, experienced, used, and liked:

Dear ___________,

I just read your email, and it’s going to take me at least a week or two to look into the matter and get back to you. I’ve added a reminder to my calendar to work on this and respond, but if you don’t hear from me by __________, then please send me a reminder.

If you know the person well, or have the time, you can give them more context about whatever else is occupying your attention. Regardless, when someone sends you an email and you don’t respond for a very long time, or at all, you risk that he or she will fill the silence with just about any interpretation, including a negative one about you or your feelings about him or her. I suggest “naming the silence” as a default practice. It’s a way to be responsive even when that’s not — officially — an option.

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