I started work about a month ago. It’s been a whirlwind, and I still don’t feel settled down yet, but things are starting to fall into place.

One of my first tasks at work is to reflect on my research interests, find other people’s research interests, and figure out a meaningful project that lies in both. That means sending lots of emails to figure out what people are working on and what they’re interested in.

Instant messaging apps like Slack may be the new kid on the block, but email is still the lifeblood of a company’s communication. It’s asynchronous, it’s free, everyone has it, and filters give you huge control over how to manage it. Email is here to stay, as annoying as it may be.

Let’s say I send an email. Three days later, I haven’t gotten a reply. Any of the following could be true.

  • They read the email, and don’t want to reply to it.
  • They read the email, and are planning to reply to it when they’re less busy.
  • They read the email, and have forgotten to reply to it.
  • They haven’t read the email because they’re on vacation.

What I should do in response depends on which of these is true. If they’re busy or on vacation, I should wait until they get to me. If they’ve forgotten, I should send a reminder. If they don’t want to reply, I should either send an email to convince them it’s worth replying, or stop sending emails to respect their decision.

However, all I observe is no reply in my inbox. So, which one’s true?

Information theory 101: if there are several reasonable hypotheses that all lead to the same observation, and you want to figure out which one is true, you are screwed.

So far, my rule of thumb is to model people as busy and working in good faith. That means being patient with email replies, sending reminders for important requests, and dropping email threads if I don’t get a response to a polite request.

This has worked well enough, but can we do better?

Let’s suppose people do this.

  • They go on vacation. Before leaving, they set up an auto-reply saying they’re on vacation, and will be back in a week.
  • They want to reply to an email, but it’ll take time to respond properly, and other work has higher priority. They decide to send a quick reply explaining the situation, promising to look at it more thoroughly later.

By doing so, they change the observation that the sender observes, letting them make a more informed decision.

If you want to be treated differently depending on how busy you are, you have to tell people how busy you are. Otherwise, you run into the problem Philip Guo observed: several people will make polite requests for your time, saying no to any polite request makes you feel like an asshole, and saying yes to all of them consumes all your time.

Which brings me to the most insidious pair of scenarios. The pair which has no easy way to change the observation.

  • They don’t want to reply to my email.
  • They forgot to reply to my email.

I’ve almost never gotten an email verifying the first one. Instead, they don’t send a reply, and hope you’ll read the signs. I’m guilty of this too. Just ask all the people in my LinkedIn inbox.

I think people don’t want to hurt the sender’s feelings, or want to have plausible deniability. But, it’s self-evident to me that not all my emails deserve meaningful replies. I work with busy people, who don’t have time for everything they’re asked to do. Not getting a reply isn’t an insult to my request. All it means is that they have limited bandwidth and I didn’t make it through the pipe.

The issue is that if people are interested, but forgot to follow up, or don’t know how to follow up, you end up reading the wrong signs, and think they aren’t interested at all. In work contexts, this isn’t so bad. In romantic contexts…things can get complicated.

I’ve mentioned similar ideas to some of my friends, and they don’t think the same way. I think these ideas all flow from my social awkwardness. I can navigate how social interactions work (somewhat), but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I want communication to work differently. There’s definitely room for more polite “No”s. But communication doesn’t change unless all parties involved agree it should work differently. At a societal level, these shifts come incredibly slowly. At best, we can write down our ideas, share them with other people, and see where that goes.

Until then, all those LinkedIn emails are going to collect virtual dust.