Brace yourself and pester when your email's unanswered

Brace yourself and pester when your emails unanswered In a world in which people have largely given up answering at all, it is moronic to ask only once

Lucy Kellaway

Do it today: JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon has told all his underlings to reply to emails within the day. Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Do it today: JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon has told all his underlings to reply to emails within the day. Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters


There used to be two answers to most things in business – yes and no. Now there is a third one that is becoming more popular than either. It is silence – or no answer at all.

I’ve just had an anguished message from a reader who has spent the past year applying to jobs, often going through several rounds of interviews, as a result of which he has received no offers, and no rejections either. Every time the process ended in silence.

Silence is not just a response to job searches, but to pitches, invitations, proposed meetings, memos, general requests – or to anything sent by email.

From this non-communication everyone loses, though some more than others. For the purveyors of silence, not replying may be neither polite nor efficient, but is vital for survival. Every day I fail to reply to dozens of messages as with so much dross coming in, silence is the only way of staying sane.

But such sanity on one side breeds insanity on the other. The jobseeker is demented by the silence – the certainty of rejection, he told me, would have been kind by comparison. On any given day I am anywhere between mildly and debilitatingly anxious about why assorted people have failed to reply to my messages. Was the silence that greeted a slightly cheeky email due to disgust at its fresh tone? When I sent an email containing the outline of a column idea in it, was the resulting silence dismay? Or disagreement? Or something else entirely?

Impossible to fathom

What is so distracting about silence on email is that it is impossible to fathom. When you are speaking to someone, you can see whether they are struck dumb from amazement, disapproval or boredom. But emails give no clues. Has the person even seen your message? Are they deliberately ignoring you? Are they disgusted? Busy? Out of battery? Or could it be that – as often happens to me – they have read the message on their mobile without reading glasses to hand, and by the time they have got their glasses the moment has passed.


Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, thinks he has the answer. He has told all his underlings to reply to emails within the day – which may be great news for the bank’s clients, though surely means his bankers are so busy tapping out hasty replies they have no time left for banking.

Another solution might be a system that allows us to check and see at once when our emails have been opened. But this is not the answer either as “read receipts” are invasive, and knowing that someone has read your message doesn’t lessen the paranoia – it increases it.

The only efficient solution would be to make it more bothersome or more expensive for us to communicate with each other. Then only reasonable requests would come in, and replying would be back in fashion. But until that time each of us needs to construct a system.

The starting point is to understand that while silence probably means no, it might mean yes or maybe – which makes it essential to ask again. My gut tells me this is demeaning, but my gut is wrong. There is no shame in pestering: in a world in which people have largely given up answering at all, it is moronic to ask only once.

So how long should we wait before asking again? I have found an article by an academic at Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggesting that 80 per cent of replies land in the first 29 hours, with a further 17 per cent in the next 11 days. According to this research it is right to wait 12 days – which feels too long to me. I can’t remember anything I received that long ago; I think the right answer is more like a week.


The next question is what to say in the follow-up. My inbox is cluttered with messages that begin “Sorry to nag . . .” or “I don’t know if you had time to read my message . . .” both of which are vaguely lowering. Better to summarise the message in one sentence, attaching the original for good measure.


The final question is how often to repeat the process, if a response still does not materialise. This depends how much you want an answer, but I think three times is still okay. If the answer was always going to be no, nagging can’t make things worse. And there are enough people – I am still sometimes in this group – who allocate their time not to those they want to see most but to those who persist longest.

The other solution is to pick up the phone instead. There is some research that suggests people are more likely to do what you want them to do if you ask several times in different channels. This may be so, but I so hate being phoned by people saying: “Just a call to see if you saw my email” that even if this approach works, I can’t in good conscience recommend it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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