Career advice: It can make sense to try another communication medium. But make sure you can keep your tone friendly.
Q: How should I respond when my emails are not answered? Recently I met an individual in my field (art history), and we had an animated conversation about mutual professional interests for almost an hour. At the end, he offered to send me information to help my current book research. I followed up with an emailed appreciation and confirmation that he would send what he’d offered. No response. I tried again a week later — nothing.
I have previously followed up with nonresponders with the subject line “Lost in cyberspace?” asking if my email or the other person’s response never arrived. Or stating that I know they have a lot of demands on their time, etc. Usually these methods get a response and apology.
A psychologist friend says I should pick up the phone. But I worry about being confrontational — partly because I am offended by this ignoring of my friendly email. My research will benefit him, too. He should help me as he offered. What is the protocol?
A: While it would be useful to have a universally agreed-upon protocol, I don’t think it exists. Opinions vary about whether every email deserves a response. I’d say an unsolicited note may not, but you are correct that this person should follow through on his promise.
Still, we have many options for communicating but, really, no consensus about the best way to do so. Some find email burdensome and prefer a call (or text); others evidently detest the phone, keeping a fastidious inbox even as they can’t be bothered to listen to a voicemail message. So sometimes it can be helpful to just ask a new contact point blank: What’s the best way for me to follow up?
When it’s too late for that, your follow-up strategies are right: nonconfrontational, offering your laggard correspondent a face-saving excuse, but also signaling that you’re not going away. You may also try adding some new tidbit that may inspire a response, as a form of bait: “By the way, I came across an article about X that seemed relevant to your new project; let me know if you want me to pass that along.”
The real problem with electronic communication, despite its conveniences, is that lack of context makes it easy to project the worst interpretations onto someone else’s words — or silence. Maybe this person is carefully compiling the information he promised. Maybe he’s since realized it’s useless, and is embarrassed. Maybe you’ve mistyped his email address. The point is, it’s important to remain polite even when you’re annoyed.
Possibly the one thing worse than being badgered by an indignant emailer is hounding somebody only to receive a note weeks later apologizing for being out of touch because of an unexpected stint in the hospital.
With all that in mind, it can make sense to try another communication medium. But make sure you can keep your tone friendly. Remember that the most important thing isn’t being right about someone else’s manners — it’s getting what you want.
Q: Recently I was let go from a job that I hated. It was a harsh environment — the boss would scream at me and my colleagues every day. For a while I stuck it out and worked harder. But after a year, a promised raise and benefits didn’t materialize, and I felt unmotivated. I was a great employee most of my time there but underperformed that last month. Ultimately I left on bad terms with my boss, and I’m not proud of how I acted.
Earlier I had asked a co-worker if she could give me a reference, and she enthusiastically agreed. More recently she said she would still do so — but also gave me honest feedback that makes me think she will do the bare minimum (confirm employment dates, etc.).
This is the first time I’ve been fired. I don’t know what to do. Should I email my old boss back to make amends? I wasn’t going to ask him for a reference anyway.
A: As a strategic matter, trying to mend fences with the old boss doesn’t seem promising. He doesn’t sound particularly forgiving, and if using him as a reference isn’t on the table, it’s hard to see the point. Besides, you still blame him; if that comes across even inadvertently, it could make things worse. So it’s probably better just to let that relationship go.
It may be more productive to think about the “honest feedback” your former co-worker offered. If that involved your admittedly less stellar final month on the job, maybe it would be helpful for her to understand what triggered that performance blip. You might frame this in the form of seeking counsel: You slipped at the end, and there are reasons, but it won’t happen again — and since you respect her opinion, you’d welcome any advice. In short, communicating your attitude to this potential reference seems more promising than converting that former boss. Meanwhile, make sure your references from more positive job experiences are in order, and remember that this one incident doesn’t define you — or determine what happens next.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Submit questions to Rob Walker at email@example.com.