The ambiguity of silence

A friend of mine who works in the oil business once told me about binational meetings that went astray because for one set of people silence meant agreement while for the other it meant disagreement. The agreeing faction got annoyed when the argument continued and the disagreeing faction got annoyed when their agreement was assuIMG_6397med. And this was among people all around the same table.

What do you do when the silence comes through an unanswered email, or a message not returned? I suppose there are three interpretations, that the person missed the message and so didn’t know there was something to answer, disagreement, but hesitancy to offend, or indecision. Most people hate to push, so just drop it when someone does not answer. This leaves the recipient the freedom to claim they were misinterpreted if the issue comes up later. Others are perhaps more anxious of a clear answer and so ask a second time, risking being annoying, but also increasing the chance of catching someone who didn’t mean to give no answer.

I think unanswered requests are getting more and more common, perhaps as requests and invitations get more common. I guess some people like the ambiguity that the cloud of no response gives them. But I am not a fan. I prefer an answer. I think they can take three forms: yes, no, and still unsure (and I’ll get back to you, or remind me in 2 weeks). I might prefer a yes, but would rather have a no than a void.  How about some examples?

I have organized meetings that might have 20 participants, each with a specific role. For each slot it is common to have in the original list a careful tabulation of first, second, even third and fourth choices. First I invite all the first choices. Any that say no I move on to the second choice. They are likely to be just as good as the first choice, but perhaps fitting some other criterion less well as one tries to balance many kinds of diversity for meetings to be vibrant and innovative. I want to get the meeting going quickly, so what do I do with the first to be invited that simply do not answer? It is frustrating. I have even recontacted several times and get no answer so I must then disinvite them to move on to other choices. Is there someone watching all this email writhing, or is the address dead? Is there a tormented conscious, or simply a quick hand with the delete key?

I’m more likely to assume there is a no behind lack of answer when there has been a continuing exchange on a topic that suddenly goes quiet. In these cases assuming lack of interest, or a no answer is probably a safe bet. But why not just say so? Are we all so afraid of hurting each other’s feelings that we can’t just come out and say no?

Would it not be better to just answer and keep things clear? I’ll try to answer you, and hope you can answer me!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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