published Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Email, text, voicemail. No answer. What gives? What to do when instant messaging isn't

Photo illustration of someone texting.
Photo illustration of someone texting.
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Do you get mad when your texts go unanswered?
LOCAL REACTIONS

"It's more of a blessing -- being connected to other people in a way that people weren't pre-cellphone creation. Someone can get a hold of me whenever. ... At the same time, I leave my cellphone and wallet behind every Thursday and go off by myself."

— Vaughn Stegall, 20, Chattanooga

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    Vaughn Stegall, 20, Chattanooga
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"I often hear people say that it limits your human interaction, but with the people I know, it's just another extension of those relationships. There's depth. For some people, it's hard to stop working and checking notifications. It's hard to rest."

— Spencer Cantrell, 20, UTC

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    Spencer Cantrell, 20, UTC
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CHICAGO — 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 chat message. We wait -- and nothing happens. Or we make a phone call. Leave a voicemail message. Wait. Again, nothing.

We tend to assume it's a snub, and sometimes it is.

Erica Swallow, a 26-year-old New Yorker, says she's heard a former boyfriend brag about how many text messages he never reads. "Who does that?" she asks, 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 cell phone owners say people they know complain because they don't respond promptly to phone calls or text messages. A third of cell owners also 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., jokes 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 says.

She sent him an email with the details, but he didn't respond. She says she then telephoned and texted him to tell him it was a present. He eventually sent a one-line email, she says, telling her he was too swamped to open her email gift right then.

Instant communication "can be wonderful -- but also terrible," says Barr, who shared the story more as a lament of modern communication than a reprimand of her son, whose busy work life, she acknowledged, often takes him overseas.

So this year, she sent him a birthday gift by snail-mail in a box. "He actually opened it," she says, and they've been talking more frequently since then.

Many other people, though, sit waiting for responses that never come.

"That's where the frustration lies -- it's in the ambiguity," says Susannah Stern, a professor of communication studies at San Diego State University.

Though we often assume the worst, experts say we shouldn't.

Frequently, they say, people simply -- and unknowingly -- choose the wrong way to contact someone.

"I admit to having often been lax with checking my work number voicemail, which has led to me not responding to people waiting for my reply," says Janet Sternberg, an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.

She's also had technical glitches. For instance: thinking she'd sent a text message to someone overseas and then, when he didn't respond, realizing she had his international number programmed incorrectly in her phone.

"The sheer management of all these devices and channels is exhausting and sometimes daunting, leaving less and less time for actual communication," Sternberg says. "We connect more but communicate less, in many ways."

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 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," says von Schlegel, the 30-year-old managing director of the firm, known as Cibola. She says missed communication has caused her to lose some business deals. Often, it's when people try to contact her by Facebook or direct message on Twitter and she doesn't see the messages for days. Email, she says, is her preferred mode of communication.

But even then, she says, 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 of communication if something is truly urgent.

"I think there's this understanding because we've grown up being bombarded by communication," says 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."

San Francisco-based AwayFind Inc. is among companies that have developed applications that help filter email -- in this instance, alerting user-s to important emails on their mobile devices.

In the end, we can't possibly respond to everything, says Jared Goralnick, the company's founder and CEO.

As he sees it, it's good to be responsive, "but not to set an expectation that you'll be available for everything."

"That's just not sustainable," he says.

In other words, if we're going to keep our sanity, we'll sometimes have to accept the no response.

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