The Non-Response Response

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.

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  1. Lacuna, as Freud and Jung both observed, are often revealed in word slips, spoken and written. Take a look at these two sentences in your comment: “As for your emails, I have been pretty responsible in replying to them in a timely and serious manner. I may have missed one a month ago, but I don’t recall ever getting an email from you in the nearly forty years since graduation.” What’s so striking here is that you are a professional writer and philosopher and yet a staggering contradiction between these two statements slipped by you. In the first sentence, you claim to , “have been pretty responsible in replying to them (my emails) in a timely and serious manner.” Then in the next sentence, you state, “…I don’t recall ever getting an email from you in the nearly forty years since graduation.” (!!!!) A rather shockingly obvious set of contradictions from a philosopher who hasn’t, in any of the blogs I’ve read, let a single typo or grammatical faux pas slip past your eagle-sharp editorial eye. So, once again, I approach not to settle a score or create a drama but mostly out of relentless psychological curiosity to see how such a thoughtful man will respond to being confronted with a lacuna that has persisted for nearly forty years.

    1. Jonathan, this is getting ridiculous. When I say that I have been responsible in getting back to you, I mean via this blog. Each comment you make generates an email to one of my accounts. I have not responded to those but, instead, have responded to you via the blog. I think I have exercised quite a bit of patience in doing so. When I say that I have not received any emails from you, that is true. I have not received any that are not connected to this blog other than one that you sent when you started commenting. Not one. Not on gmail, ymail, or any other account of mine. This is not a matter of a forty-year psychological “lacuna” or “staggering contradiction” in my professional abilities (thank you for that), but of your sloppy investigative work and unwarranted assumptions. I also think you should do some self analysis. There’s a difference between “curiosity” and insulting people. By the way, you’re missing the larger picture. What, exactly, did your emails say? Was there a point? If you’re going to obsess over emails and a comment from forty years ago, I see no point in continuing this discussion. And, yes, you will get a non-response. Spin that as you will.

      1. Seriously Rob, is that the best you can do? It looks like you deleted your early comment that I quoted and apparently you want to spin your remark about responding to emails as actually meaning responding to blog posts when we so obviously distinguished between those two very different forms of communication earlier! I stand by my perspective Rob and will settle for another non-response response from you which seems quite in character. I’ll leave you to your blog without further comments from me on this subject or any other (it’s your blog so you should have the last word). If you should choose to email me, however, I will respond, and not with insults but with authenticity and respectful communication and insights about the past that should interest you. The likely problem, however, is that authenticity is threatening to some, and easier to spin as insult. Zap over and out.

  2. Rob, you’ve never replied to any email I’ve ever sent, and when I pointed that out here months ago you didn’t offer to search your inbox or ask me to resend. Even the tone and content of your responses to my various comments in your blog, as well as the non-response responses suggest certain repressed content and personal context. Ask a third party to read them and see if they could guess from your words that we were best friends for four years in college and had a complex past history relevant to some of what’s being discussed. I can well believe you don’t remember Dr. Henry’s words (she was actually quoting someone else) and how they caused a rather sudden estrangement. I’m open to exploring with you in a more private venue if you wish, otherwise I may have to settle for more of your non-response responses. But I’m not offended and there’s often a bit of tongue-in-cheek dramatization in what I say. Also, if you remember, I was raised in the tradition of confrontational Socratic dialogue, a style that easily offends or is misunderstood. But since you’re also from NYC and philosophically trained, I figured you ought to be up to the challenge.

  3. I’ve emailed you several times over the last few years without a response. The last time just a few months ago. I commented on it here at the time and you didn’t seem too concerned.

    1. Thinking about it, this could be a great teachable moment. I haven’t been reading your blogs recently, but this one seems to call out to me as a message from what Jung called the “shadow.” This appears to be a case of where someone was calling out their own offense as if it were only in the world, but not in themselves. So it makes the point I made, several months ago, right here in the comments to this blog, of your “non-response response,” appear like a lacuna in the blind spot of your rearview mirror, like the white yang dot int he black yin part of the yin-yang symbol. At the time I felt I understood perfectly your non-reponse response as an artifact of your shadow and directly related to an incident that happened at Ursinus in the late spring of 1978, something Dr. Henry told us. As I mentioned in blog comments months ago, and in those emails I sent, it was doing a google search for Dr. Henry months ago that led me to your blog and I was struck by the fateful irony that she would, post-mortem, bring us back in contact, when a few words she said almost 40 years ago appear to still divide us.

      1. Jonathan, I think if you read the post, which is tongue-in-cheek, I make it clear that I really am as guilty as anyone else in not responding. As for your emails, I have been pretty responsible in replying to them in a timely and serious manner. I may have missed one a month ago, but I don’t recall ever getting an email from you in the nearly forty years since graduation. I’m sure I would have remembered it and responded. I also don’t know or remember what Joyce said. As for the “shadow” comment, yes, there’s projection going on. It’s just not mine.

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