• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

E-mail Silence: I'm Not Writing Back Because I Hate You

It’s summertime, and we’re all dealing with e-mail as best we can. Some of us answer it daily no matter what. Others let it pile up when we’re on vacation, and then whittle away at it upon our return. Others blast through the pile in a burst of sustained correspondence the first day back.

In the summer, we all recognize that people’s normal communication habits are interrupted.

But in the rest of the year?

I’ve come to see e-mail silence–when someone takes longer to reply than I think she should–as a Rorschach test. How I interpret that void, how I fill it in, tells me what’s in my mind to use as filler.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine in another city did not reply to several e-mails I sent him over three months. I passed through a succession of emotions: denial (“It’s no big deal”) to anxiety (“I wonder what’s wrong”) to anger (“That conceited jerk!”) to sadness (“He doesn’t like me anymore”).

Finally, he did reply, and told me that he and his professional website had encountered a terrible series of problems with their ISP that lasted, yes, three months, and he was only now back online and catching up.

Have you ever had to take one of those psychological tests consisting of sentence stem completions? They look like this: “When I walk into a room, I feel ____” or “When people look at me, they think ___.” Well, e-mail silence is like that: “My boss isn’t writing me back right away because ____” or “My father isn’t writing me back right away because ____” or “My girlfriend isn’t writing me back right away because ______.”

What I fill in tells me something of what I have in mind to fill it in with. And when I consider my customary reactions to e-mail silence, I sometimes don’t like what I see.

Cognitive therapist Dr. David Burns warns us against “mind reading” and “catastrophism,” the habits of mind by which (1) we assume we know what someone else is thinking and (2) we assume the worst. Indeed, a therapist friend of mine says that most people who engage in mind reading also engage in catastrophism, rather than assuming positive motives: “He’s not writing me back right away because he’s mulling over just which superlatives to use!”

So as we cut each other some slack this summer–“She must be on vacation and didn’t happen to set her e-mail account to auto-reply with that information; that’s cool”–we might just keep doing so all year ’round.

Or we could speculate as to the evil motives prompting the silence. But if we do, then we also ought to write down our speculations and then hurry off to our therapists or spiritual directors with the list in hand, since those speculations will reveal a lot more about us than they will about our correspondents, who probably don’t hate us after all.

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