If your normally happy colleague ignored your chirpy “Hello!” in the hallway, you’d know something was wrong. If the silent treatment continued when you were back at your desk, you’d try to figure out what happened. It’s not so much your colleague’s silence that makes you so anxious, it’s the change in behavioral patterns. 

In our digital world, the so-called silent treatment can show up as delayed emails, texts, and even ghosting behavior, which in turn triggers a phenomenon I call “timing anxiety”— the intense worry we feel when we find ourselves ruminating over the potential meanings of digital response times. Timing anxiety can last hours, days, weeks. Was the other person just . . . busy? Did your email even arrive? Did it end up in a spam folder? Or is the person not returning your message on purpose and engaging in what I call the silent response

Sometimes we get a response to an email that’s so lacking in expression or emotions it might as well be a fast-food flyer slipped under a lobby door. If this happens, it’s impossible for us not to wonder, Am I overreacting? Is it possible the other person is just being direct and to the point? 

Our collective and universal reliance on fast-paced, real-time texting often leaves us unnaturally frustrated when we don’t receive instantaneous responses in other channels. Imagine you just emailed a co-worker on a different team with the words Dinner soon? Two days later, no response. But your co-worker has found time to post a new picture of his corgi on Facebook and Instagram. Instead of following up with a new email, you “like” his social media corgi photo, hoping your little red heart will guilt him into responding to your first email. A week goes by before he responds with Sorry for the delay!!!! When you finally meet, it turns out that he really was just overwhelmed with stressors (training a corgi puppy takes work) and didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for a dinner meeting. Remember the days of voicemail, when a one-week response was acceptable? 

Other scenarios are just as ambiguous. My friend Margaret told me that when she left one company for another, a former colleague stopped talking to her. Margaret texted her col- league to tell her she was leaving, and waited eight days before receiving a response. In Margaret’s mind, a two-day delay was tantamount to not talking at all. Another friend, Julie, told me that when someone took a week to reply to her urgent text, she was so annoyed she didn’t want to answer. Interpreting the weeklong silence as being “ignored,” she ignored the person right back. Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules to know definitively if someone is using silence as a cudgel. The bigger point is that we all need to be aware that our digital body language emits signals, deliberate or not. 

Ghosting is a relatively new term used to describe the act of allowing texts or emails to go unanswered—especially when a follow-up has been sent to no avail. A few months ago, another friend of mine, Neill, sent his friend Shelly a WhatsApp message: Can you call me when you get this? The notification popped up on Shelly’s phone, but she was annoyed with Neill at the time and in no mood to answer, so she devised a workaround to make it look like she hadn’t read Neill’s message by sliding it down and reading only the message’s sneak preview. Seeing that Shelly never actually opened his message, Neill indeed assumed that she hadn’t read it. For her part, Shelly felt in the clear so long as she refrained from clicking on it. When enough time had passed, Shelly finally opened the message on WhatsApp and replied, Oh, hey, just getting this! I’ll call you in a sec. (They both told me later this is how their exchange played out.) 

Because of the expectation for immediate responses, today’s messaging systems make it nearly impossible to take a break from one another. We’ve all felt like Shelly or Neill at one time or another. We can’t assume our propensity for fast (or slow) responses is shared by others. But in our workplaces, it’s essential to establish agreed-upon norms around messaging apps and time frames so we don’t end up “ghosting” one another over, say, a simple communication about an upcoming meeting. 

Avoid Digital Ghosting

If you are waiting for a response:

  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Unless it’s critical that you get a reply ASAP, remember that people may have a lot on their plates. 
  • If you follow up twice with no response, switch to a different medium. 

If you need to get back to someone: 

  • If you can answer in 60 seconds or less, respond immediately. 
  • If it’s urgent, respond immediately or let the sender know you are working on it. Make an appointment with yourself on your calendar to answer. 
  • For matters lacking urgency, don’t stress. Block out time to follow up later at your convenience. 

In our digital world, initiating contact has become incredibly easy. It’s so easy, in fact, that we expect our recipient to be able to respond to our message just as easily. As a result, we expect a fast response. Without clear understanding, slow response times and what can be perceived as “ghosting” are now becoming another source of stress and anxiety in our remote workforce. By being open-minded towards the numerous variables that can cause delays or slow responses, we can help to alleviate our own anxieties when it comes to digital body language.

Adapted excerpt from Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance by Erica Dhawan. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st century teamwork and communication. She is an award winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to End Digital Burnout. Follow her on Linkedin.