The email black hole

black holeHave you ever sent an email to someone and then gotten no response? I’ve had several people tell me that they are surprised at how often they don’t receive replies to emails – even just a “Thanks, I’ll get back to you soon.” I have experienced the same thing and it always baffles me, especially when I send something that would warrant a reply.

I realize people are busy and we are all inundated with too many emails, but, even if you don’t have an answer to a question or have the information someone is requesting it’s important to acknowledge the email for a few reasons. 1. To let the sender know you received the email and it didn’t go into the email black hole. 2. To inform the sender of your intent for getting back to them. Here are some examples of email non-response situations friends have shared with me.

One friend sent an email to a designer who was working on a design project for her. The email had information the designer requested – copy and design specs. The designer did not respond. My friend had no idea if the information was received and when her project would be done.

A colleague sent an email to another colleague suggesting dates for an agreed upon meeting. My colleague always blocks out the dates and times in his calendar when he suggests meeting times so that he doesn’t double book himself. But the person he was trying to meet with took more than a week to respond and in the meantime my colleague missed scheduling other meetings on those dates.

A friend sent an email to a coworker asking for information about a project they were working on together. The coworker never responded and my friend was not able to meet a deadline on the project because her coworker didn’t get her the information she needed.

Another colleague sent a proposal to a prospective client who called her about a training for his staff. The prospective client had been referred to my colleague with a recommendation from a coworker, had a date and time for the training and agreed to the price on the phone. In other words, the prospect was completely on board with working with my colleague, but he didn’t respond to the follow-up email with the proposal. My colleague had no idea if the email was received, putting her in a bit of an awkward spot. Should she call the prospect to ask if he received the proposal and risk looking like a pest? Should she assume he did receive the email and will get back to her when he is ready? How long should she wait before following up with him?

As you can see, when we don’t respond to emails it can cause a lot of problems for the sender. The sender should not have to track you down to get a response. Here are some etiquette guidelines to heed.

  • If you receive an email and don’t have answers to what is being asked right then go ahead and acknowledge the email and state when you expect to get back to the sender with an answer.
  • If someone sends you an email with documents attached, reply that you received the information. Sometimes emails with attachments get caught in spam filters so it’s important to let people know you received them. In the case of the designer and the prospective client above, they should have acknowledged the emails and stated when they would get back to the sender.
  • If the sender is proposing a meeting with dates, respond as soon as you can so that person can free up the dates that don’t work for you for other meetings.

The bottom line is to respond to people’s emails. It is the courteous thing to do.

Have you experienced people not responding to your emails? How did the non-response affect you? Have you ever been guilty of not responding to emails? If so, why did you not respond?


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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. Carole on September 3, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    I must (politely!) disagree. I don’t think putting the onous on the person who fails to answer is the best approach.
    First of all, I allow a minimum of 3-days response time, unless I gave them a deadline. If it’s not time-imperative, I may wait up to 7 days.
    When I am expecting a response that doesn’t arrive, I simply FORWARD the original email to the recipient again (so they can see when and what I asked) and *politely* repeat the request (i.e. assume they simply overlooked it). If I need to repeat this process in 3 days, so be it. I simply continue to make repeat the request politely and let the email trail speak for itself–though repetition is usually not needed.
    There are a whole host of reasons why people don’t respond in YOUR timeframe: the email is in their JUNK folder and they haven’t seen it yet, emergencies, excessive workloads, inability to prioritize, addressing urgent tasks instead of important ones (poor time management), they’re “thinking”…etc.
    If you were expecting or need a response, ask politely again. Repeat as needed. Expecting others to change their behavior seems self-absorbed, or at the very least ineffectual.

  2. fallingsnow225 on September 8, 2014 at 11:27 am

    I whole heartedly agree for the most part, however, I disagree that every email warrants a response.   Personally, I receive many, many emails every day. When someone makes a request of me and I’ve responded, it’s actually a bit annoying to receive ANOTHER email that just says “Thanks.” Honestly, I actually prefer no response than  having more emails to sift through!

  3. ArdenClise on September 8, 2014 at 11:57 am

    @Carole I agree it is incumbent on us to follow-up if we don’t receive a response, however we shouldn’t have to. The usual business time frame is 24 hours. Many of my clients follow this practice. I know people are busy, I know they have other pressing things to do, but if someone needs information it’s rude not to get back to the person. I also think after following up with another email we should pick up the phone if we don’t hear back from someone in case the email did go into the spam filter.

    I’ve got a perfect example right now. A client has not responded to my training agreement or invoice emails. I followed up a week later by email asking if she had received them. Since it’s been four days and the training is in less than a month I will call her today in case my emails are going into the spam filter.

    I still believe people need to respond within the standard practice of 24 hours when they are being asked a question or someone needs something from them.

  4. ArdenClise on September 8, 2014 at 11:58 am

    @fallingsnow225 I agree that it’s not necessary to respond if no action is required or there were no attachments. I don’t want to advocate for more emails.
    Thanks for commenting.

  5. Cindy on May 11, 2018 at 12:20 am

    When I worked in an office, it was pre-internet, and if we wanted information we got off our seats and went and found it. Or we telephoned. I really dislike the email/texting age – it’s so easy to send an email to someone who sits just down the hall from you instead of walking down there. And then people wonder why they’re not getting an immediate response…

    As for clients not responding after they’ve gotten all the information they need, and you’re waiting on a response to set up the meeting/project, sometimes they’ve gone off the idea, or they may be having difficulty deciding, or have even taken their business to someone else, and are too cowardly to let you know. In my opinion, it’s just plain bad manners, but I was brought up in a different age, when manners mattered.

    I found your article because I was looking for information on how long you should expect a ‘friend’ to take to answer your email. It had been months since I’d heard back from them, so I sent another email asking if I’d inadvertently offended them. They then responded that they were taken aback by the content of my email. I’m thinking that I have no right to put a deadline on a friend’s response time, but I also don’t want to be friends with people who find it a chore to respond to me. I want friends who *want* to talk to me…

  6. Arden on May 14, 2018 at 9:24 pm

    Hello Cindy,
    I think it’s reasonable to expect a response from someone within two to three days. Months is inexcusable. If you don’t hear back from someone, how do you know if they received the email? I don’t know the full context of your emails with your friends, but I’m a little surprised they would be offended that you followed up with them after not hearing from them for months. I agree you shouldn’t assign a deadline unless you need an answer by a certain time. For instance, I emailed my friends to invite them to attend a concert with me and because the tickets were going on sale very soon and I knew the tickets would sell out I did state that I needed to hear from them asap. It was a reasonable request. If you’re working on a work project that has a deadline, it would be appropriate to let your coworker(s) know when you need the information from them to complete the project. I hope that helps.

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