Is Sending an Email and Getting No Response Typical for America?

Typical for America

Dear Americans: I get it, you know. No response means I didn’t get the job. I don’t fit into your schedule at the moment. You have other priorities. That’s all fine; I can take it. But, I don’t like it.

Something still annoys me after spending four years in the US: getting no response to an email or text. I don’t mean replies to random requests or pitches to strangers. I’m talking about sending an email thanking someone for a meeting or an interview. I’m talking about sending an offer after receiving a solicitation to apply. I’m talking about sharing a follow-up email. What’s the common complaint? Hearing NOTHING back.

I get the lack of response because it happens in my life too. I decided for a while to translate no response as “I don’t have time to meet with you now” or “I can’t make it for dinner.” BUT, I still feel that this behavior is rude. How am I supposed to react to someone dropping a conversation? Does it have something to do with me? Am I a boring or uninspiring person? Have I somehow offended you without noticing? Or perhaps you just don’t like me?

What is “Typical” American Communication?

Christina Rebuffet, an American based in Paris, posted a video called “The Secret Meaning of Let’s Get Together.” In the video and an accompanying blog post, she explained that something that sounds like an invitation to non-Americans (e.g. “You should come over for coffee one day”) is in fact not an invitation but “just a friendly gesture. A way to say, ‘Hey, I like you.’”

At the same time, I experience American politeness in other areas every day. You greet others with “How are you?” Even if you don’t expect me to give a detailed answer, you seem to be interested in my response. Every five seconds, you apologize in uncrowded stores simply because your cart is less than two feet away. My kids’ American teachers never say anything negative to them or to me. I’ve had to learn to read between the lines to understand your communication.

Rudeness Isn’t Just in America

While I considered these aspects, I started to ask around my network last week. I’d sum up the answers I got with a single word: efficiency.

Rainer Henkel, a German freelance translator who works with American companies, answered me via Facebook: “I receive a lot of emails on a daily basis about translation jobs. I always responded when I was not able to take the job with a “sorry” email … I found out that most people were surprised that I answered even when I was not able to take the job. … Of course, it depends on the business. I receive 20+ emails each day, from which I have to decline 18, 19, or all of them, as I am usually pretty booked. So, I stopped replying since Americans are not used to it, and they don’t consider it rude.They keep sending me jobs!”

Bobby Kennedy, a technology writer and administrator of the Facebook group Werkstatt USA, wrote the following: “Something I’ve noticed is that Americans do not like to say ‘No, we wouldn’t be interested.’ It’s considered more proper to fib in business in most cases. In Germany, business management personnel will bluntly express the prospects of a partnership: “We’ll read it over, but this doesn’t look like the most promising deal.” In most cases, this type of response is just too blunt for American tastes.”

Of course, Americans are not alone in their rudeness. The French are quite good at ignoring messages too. Germans will usually give an answer, even if it’s negative. Maybe this is due to their emphasis on organization and directness.

The Impact of Digital Media On Communication

A few years ago, New York Times columnist Alina Tugend wrote about “The Anxiety of Unanswered Emails.” According to Tugend, “Lack of time and too many emails are the most common reasons why people say they don’t reply … Checking their emails on one device like a smartphone, making a mental note to reply more in-depth later, and then forgetting is another.”

This makes sense. However, failing to respond happens too frequently to be only due to forgetfulness. It must be done on purpose at some level, and that’s what Tugend also found: “There are more emotional reasons as well. One is a fear of commitment or a hesitation to say no.”

In her article, Tugend cited a digital marketing colleague who has “seen an increase in the nonresponse rather than just politely declining. You delete [the message] and hope it goes away, just like if someone comes to your door and you pretend you’re not home.”

Last Friday, I spoke with Doug Seville from DSML Executive Search, who (like myself) works for European companies doing business in the United States but on the HR side. His company has a policy of answering every inquiry. However Doug acknowledged that he has “often stopped answering requests from individuals who clearly have sent an email blast out to hundreds of recruiters.“ He also stopped communicating with those who continually pester him with follow-up emails.

Some Final Words

Emails, texts, and Whatsapp messages have replaced phone calls now. I realize that I’m not immune to the interpersonal distance of new media. Instead of calling someone and risking not getting through, I now send a couple of emails. But, hearing nothing back is still like hearing static on the line. I’m used to answering my emails, and I think I’ll keep doing it, because the Golden rule is Treat others how you want to be treated.

Or do you think I’m wrong?

Photo credit: DDRockstar


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  • I don’t know if it’s typical, but it certainly happens. The points you raise in your blog are dead-on. We Americans somehow think it’s nicer to say nothing (or fib) than to be honestly negative: “No, I don’t have time to meet with you.”

    Just yesterday, in fact, I sent a follow-up email to a client asking why she had chosen to “go in another direction” with a project (translation: use another vendor). This client and I go back years and we do regular work for them. But rather than just say “your quote was too high,” she gave me some line about time constraints and then, when I asked her for clarification, simply didn’t respond to my email. I can’t picture our French clients, for example, doing the same.

    In my experience, the French have no problem telling you something that you won’t like hearing. (This is one of the reasons why customer service in France is completely different than it is in the U.S.)

  • Catherine, Your article really spoke to me! I needed this “wake-up” so I am not as apathetic as I have been with my friends and committee colleagues when they send emails to me. Fact is, when I receive an email that has been sent to several other recipients in addition to me, I do not regard it as a “personal email”. If it contains information that I have to think about or respond to, I IGNORE the message for several days because I just DO NOT WANT TO DEAL WITH IT…YET. If a friend emails me about personal matters that require nurturing, comfort, advice, etc., and I do not have the time nor energy to write something very comforting and loving back, I…(yes…I am going to admit it)…IGNORE THE FRIEND’S MESSAGE! I eventually write or call, but it can be 2-3 days later and now I realize this is inexcusable. Sometimes it is just “emotional overload” for me and I have to have some quiet time by myself before I have anything useful to offer to another. Today I am thinking hard about this matter.. I think I can at least email right back to say, “I am so glad you wrote to me. You deserve a sincere response and I will send one to you as soon as I am able to”…even if it is about committee work. what I need to solve is what to do when I am traveling. I do not like to answer text or email messages when I am away and often cannot anyway because of internet and cell phone access. I don’t have an iPhone that can transmit emails. Most people automatically assume I receive their messages the minute after they hit “Send”! Thanks for making me, an American, work on better manners. I hope you will notice the difference in how I respond to your blogs and emails, my friend!

    • Now I feel miserable because I didn’t want to lecture anyone! From comments on social media around this article I can tell you that many share your thoughts and feelings about not reacting to emails or text messages.
      Right now you gave me a hint to a follow up article. Thank you for your truly honest comment!

  • Really like this article, because it reminds us to keep up being polite with each other and respect the time and work someone has spent or did. Nowadays there’s so much going on that people think it’s not even necessary to respond to a text message or email, which is definitely rude. It doesn’t have to be a long text but just one sentence would be actually ok. On the other hand it shows how important this message was what you’ve sent. If the other person really needs something of you, your text message or email will immediately be answered ;).

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