Technology is supposed to make us easier to reach, and often does. But the same modes of communication that have hooked us on the instant reply also can leave us feeling forgotten.
We send an email, a text or an instant message. We wait — and nothing happens. Or we make a phone call. Leave a voice-mail message. Wait. Again, nothing.
We tend to assume it’s a snub, and sometimes it is.
Erica Swallow, a 26-year-old New Yorker, heard a former boyfriend brag about how many texts he never reads. “Who does that?” she asked, exasperatedly.
These days, though, no response can mean a lot of things. Maybe some people don’t see messages because they prefer email and you like Twitter. Maybe we’re just plain overwhelmed, and can’t keep up with the constant barrage of communication.
Whatever the reason, it’s causing a lot of frustration. A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 39 percent of cellphone owners say people they know complain because they don’t respond promptly to calls or texts. A third of cell owners have been told they don’t check their phones frequently enough.
It happens in love. It happens in business.
“Tell me to go to hell, but just tell me something! I’m getting lonely over here.” That’s what Cherie Kerr, a public relations executive in Santa Ana, Calif., joked she’s considered putting after her email signature.
It happens in families.
Last year, Terri Barr, a woman on Long Island, N.Y., with grown children, sent her son a birthday present — a $350 gift certificate for “a wonderful kayaking trip for six, lunch, wine, equipment,” she said. She sent him an email with the details, but he didn’t respond. She then phoned and texted him. He eventually sent a one-line email, she said, telling her he was too swamped to open her email gift right then.
Instant communication “can be wonderful — but also terrible,” said Barr, who shared the story more as a lament of modern communication than a reprimand of her son, whose busy work life often takes him overseas.
So this year, she sent his gift by snail mail. “He actually opened it,” she said, and they’ve been talking more frequently since then.
Many people, though, sit waiting for responses that never come.
“That’s where the frustration lies — it’s in the ambiguity,” said Susannah Stern, a professor of communication studies at San Diego State University.
Though we often assume the worst, experts say we shouldn’t. Frequently, people simply — and unknowingly — choose the wrong way to contact someone.
“I admit to having often been lax with checking my work number voice mail, which has led to me not responding to people waiting for my reply,” said Janet Sternberg, an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. “The sheer management of all these devices and channels is exhausting and sometimes daunting, leaving less and less time for actual communication.”
That’s why many people say they have no choice but to prioritize — and to respond only to the most urgent messages.
That describes Mahrinah von Schlegel, who’s working to launch Cibola, a Chicago-based “incubator” that will offer shared office space and other resources for fledgling tech entrepreneurs.
“People get angry when not answered and send multiple messages,” said von Schlegel. She says missed communication has caused her to lose business deals. Often, it’s when people try to contact her by Facebook or direct message on Twitter. Email, she said, is her preferred mode of communication.
But even then, she said, there are only so many hours in the day: “I still need time to eat and sleep and shower.”
As she sees it, getting no response — even when she’s the one unsuccessfully trying to contact someone — is just part of life in a high-tech world. A lot of young people say that, so they’ve become accustomed to having to try again, or try a different mode.
“I think there’s this understanding because we’ve grown up being bombarded by communication,” said Mike Gnitecki, a 28-year-old special education teacher in Longview, Texas.
So he’s willing to try “multiple points of contact” when trying to reach his students’ parents — because, if he wants a response, “that’s just how it is.”
David Gillman, a 25-year-old Chicagoan, also opts for efficiency by sending mass texts to several friends at once. He only expects those who have time or inclination to respond, and doesn’t take it personally if they don’t.
It gets trickier, he said, with people from older generations, including his parents, because they like to leave voice mails, which he doesn’t like to take time to check. “I need to get better about that,” he conceded.
It helps when people are willing to step outside their own favorite mode of communication to those preferred by the person they’re contacting. Gnitecki, the teacher in Texas, is considering sending a survey home to ask parents how they’d like to be contacted.
Experts agree that choosing a primary means of contact, and letting it be known, is one way to improve communication.
San Francisco-based AwayFind Inc. is among companies that have developed applications that help filter email — for example, alerting users to important emails on their mobile devices.
In the end, we can’t possibly respond to everything, said Jared Goralnick, the company’s founder and CEO, who’s also part of the Information Overload Research Group, which looks for ways to deal with out-of-control communication.
As he sees it, it’s good to be responsive, “but not to set an expectation that you’ll be available for everything.”
In other words, if we’re going to keep our sanity, we’ll sometimes have to accept the no response.