I can think of two times in recent years that I have not responded to an email. The first, because it was stupid. The second, because it was frustrating.
The stupid email came from an academic vice president, who informed me that they did not list research and publications from adjunct faculty on the university Web site. He deserved a non-response for both individual and institutional obtuseness. He was the kind of guy who goes to “thinking outside the box” seminars and takes them seriously.
The frustrating one was from a woman asking for financial aid to come to New York as a visiting scholar to study English. It took me a while to figure out what she wanted, but in the end I couldn’t help, even after referring her to all kinds of resources and people. Eventually, I let the email string recede into that vast, electronic black hole of the googlesphere.
Twice. That’s it. The number of times people have not responded to me? Countless. In fact, I don’t even think about it anymore and am always surprised when I hear back, nearly shocked if it’s within 24 hours. I have not heard back from deans, professors, publishers, editors, program directors, colleagues, campaign organizers, companies, individuals I met at annual conferences, and even students. If you confront these people, most will say that they have been so busy that they meant to get back to you but were swamped.
At best, this is laziness, an unreflective surrender to mediocrity and the dizzying spin of events that they themselves have created. At worst, it is an outright lie. People do not get back to you not because they are overwhelmed, but because they do not want to get back to you. Then again, if they really are overwhelmed, you don’t want to hear from them, anyway.
This non-response response is a complex form of interaction. Its one-upmanship and dominance are obvious and can cause enough ill will on their own. But these are rooted in something deeper and pernicious: cruelty. The non-response response is the nadir of cruelty, because it removes your humanity. It’s not as if you do not exist. You actually, ontologically do not exist, because the medium is based on the written word. No written word, no you. Flies, at least, get waved off. You get nothing. I am reminded of a comment from an ex-wife who, in replying to my objection to her numerous non-responses, said, coldly, “But I did respond.” She might just as well have said, “Let them eat cake.”
It is in this area–romance–that the non-response inflicts the most damage. Anyone who has had their heart splintered in half or lived past the age of six understands this. Love is war, which is not newspeak like “free speech is hate” and other idiocies, but perhaps the harshest reality of the human condition. Email has now been weaponized and deployed in this war, as when the same ex-wife informed me that she wanted a divorce via email. “I’m moving in another direction,” she said, as if resigning from a job.
You get to see how people really are in their email exchanges, even more so than when they get behind the wheel. I would compare it with their behavior on social media. After all, is not YouTube email writ large?
For full disclosure, as they say in crime dramas, I, too, am guilty of non-responding beyond the two times mentioned above. To wit, a romantic interest waited two weeks before replying to my email inviting her to a movie and then asked me to check back with her in another week. She’s getting the non-response, which is too bad, because the last time we saw a kung fu movie together, she cried. It was very romantic. I’m sure it’s not me. She must be totally swamped.