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Ignoring a Text Message or Email Isn’t Always Rude. Sometimes It’s Necessary.

Thought Leader: Erica Dhawan
February 21, 2022
Written by: Erica Dhawan

It was a Tuesday night. In my apartment, I was doing three things at once — packing for a short business trip, trying to get dinner on the table for my family and taking turns with my husband to calm a crying baby. Behind me, one work Slack alert after another dinged from my laptop. I ignored them all. During dinner, a text popped up on my phone. “Where are u????” asked my colleague.

I wanted to scream. Instead, I didn’t reply to the text. This wasn’t the first time I’d ignored a digital summons, and it wouldn’t be the last. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful or malicious — but at the same time I knew what I wanted my silence to communicate: This is not a priority for me right now. You are not my priority.

Ignoring messages is frowned upon in these always-on times. At its most egregious, dropping out of communication is condemned as “ghosting,” which, in the years since the term became widespread, has become a deadly sin of digital communications.

It’s often used in dating and friendship contexts — and indeed, in research published in 2018, 21.7 percent of participants of one study admitted to ghosting a romantic partner, and almost one in three participants in another study said they had ghosted a friend. But as anyone working in a digital environment can attest, ghosting in work contexts is also rampant — among co-workers, during professional networking and in the hiring process, even among those trying to get a job. An Indeed survey published last year found that 46 percent of job seekers did not show up for a scheduled interview with a prospective employer, and 77 percent of job seekers said they had been ghosted by a prospective employer since the beginning of the pandemic.

We can all agree that suddenly cutting off contact with a romantic partner or professional colleague, never to be heard from again, is rude and should happen much less than it currently does. But what about the other, less egregious ways we might blow off each other’s messages, especially at work? In these exhausting times, when so many are overburdened with family responsibilities, stress, grief and anxiety, perhaps we should let go of the outdated, demanding requirement to participate in ceaseless back-and-forth conversations.

Cal Newport, a computer science professor and the author of “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload,” suggested to me (via email) that “triage” is a better way to describe this type of behavior.

Many of us have no choice but to triage, as we are flooded with Slack messages, emails, texts and Zoom requests, and must make constant real-time decisions about which ones warrant an instantaneous response, which ones we need to think about before answering and which others aren’t really worth our attention. All this digital noise can lead to a state of “cognitive overload,” which researchers in a paper on remote work during the pandemic published last year warned “may result in ineffective information processing, confusion, loss of control, psychological stress — or even an increase of depressive symptoms.”

For those of us who strive to be polite, text-based digital communications — all those chimes and dings and vibrations — can be extremely demanding. Ignoring a Slack, email or text message feels rude, but should it? After all, as Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute, which offers advice and training on good manners, reminded me, when our phone rings, we’re under no obligation to answer it. “You have to be a civil and decent person,” Mr. Senning told me, “but you don’t have to give your time and attention to everyone who asks for it.”

The etiquette of digital communications is and should be different from that of in-person or phone conversation, Mr. Newport argued, especially when it comes to the back and forth of hellos, goodbyes and other pleasantries, which can become a kind of communication clutter. “It might seem rude in the moment not to say something, as in an in-person conversation it can feel abrupt to not finalize an exchange,” he explained. “But in the context of digital communication, the sender often actually prefers avoiding the receipt of additional messages when possible.”

Being triaged might not feel much better than being ghosted if you have an urgent question for your boss, client or colleague — I’ve been on that side of the interaction, too. But it’s at least more realistic, relatable and human. I’ve found that it forces me to confront my own main-character syndrome — the idea that we all play a starring role in the movie that is our life, with everyone else merely the supporting cast. It makes me acknowledge that the “ghosts” are, like me, full, complicated people with off-screen demands that might often pull them away from digital conversations. It might also force me to do my own triage — do I really need this question answered, or can I make the decision myself and move on?

In an era when we understand more and more the importance of rest and time away from screens, triaging can be necessary for our peace of mind and relationships with the people in our lives: When we’re on vacation. When it’s after 7 p.m. When we’re at the dinner table. When we’re meditating or exercising. If you don’t reply immediately to a message during one of those times, don’t apologize. Just reply when you can. Or don’t.

And if you are the message sender, and you really do need an answer to that question, don’t be shy about sending a polite follow-up. There’s a strong chance the person who triaged your previous note might be grateful for a second chance to connect. Or consider switching mediums. If you’ve been triaged from an email chain and your note is urgent, follow up via instant message or Slack. But try to avoid launching a back-and-forth passive-aggressive digital sword fight. Nobody wins those.

Is triaging a blanket permission to descend into unexplained silence or become a bottleneck to your colleagues’ work? No. Instead, establish boundaries with your work colleagues upfront so that they don’t panic when they can’t reach you. Make clear what questions you want to weigh in on and which you’re happy for others to use their judgment about. Set an email responder or Slack status that makes it clear when you’ll be slow to reply. Cordon off periods of the day or week when you’re unlikely to answer messages, and let a few people know how to reach you in a true emergency.

It’s also worth asking yourself who’s putting the pressure on for an immediate response. Perhaps it’s not the message sender, but you. A recent study found that we tend to overestimate how fast our colleagues expect a response for nonurgent work emails outside of work hours. So instead of beating yourself up for not getting back to someone right away, consider slowing down and letting yourself off the hook.

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