A Year of Unanswered Emails


A passive-aggressive, yet empathetic, attempt to find out why so many of my emails never get a response.

This is ‘book’ 21 in the series The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris. The cover was created by Gus Condeixa. For more on this series, read the introduction here.

What sort of book is it?

A symphony of passive-aggressive empathy. Not that I know what that actually means.

How likely is it that I will write the book?

I’d like to write something on this general theme, but I’m not sure whether I could write a whole book on it.

Am I happy for anyone else to write the book?

I doubt anyone would, but I’d be unhappy if they did. Selfish I know.


I spend a large portion of every working day sending and replying to emails. That’s hardly unusual. It’s not unusual, too, that a significant proportion of the emails that I send never receive a reply. What may be a bit more unusual is the degree of rage that this provokes in me.

Why might rage not be an appropriate response to an unanswered email? While I’m sure that many (most?) people do get annoyed when their emails never get a response, there appears to be a strange new form of etiquette emerging in which non-responding is reasonable and accepted.

Take publishing. One well-known cliché is that even successful writers are likely to have a whole file of rejection letters. This cliché is now looking dated — the rejection letter is becoming ever rarer. The unanswered email is the new rejection letter. Similarly, in journalism, if an editor doesn’t like a pitch from a freelance writer, it’s perfectly common now for the editor to simply not reply.

Lest this seems to be the complaint of an unsuccessful writer, I point out that, with 4 books published and dozens of articles in a variety of outlets, I have no cause for complaining that I am an undiscovered genius (I’m a discovered non-genius). Further, even editors whom I know well and have published me many times before will not necessarily respond to a pitch from me that they don’t like.

One thing I’ve noticed (and I’d love to know if scholarly research bears this out) is that younger people are particularly bad at responding to email. It seems that the unspoken ‘contract’ in communication — that a message needs a response — has been broken by the digital native generation.

Perhaps they are wise to have done so. Because the reasons for the proliferation of unanswered emails are not hard to understand: People are simply deluged in emails and other kinds of messages. Even if you are organised enough to wade through the spam and other clutter to get to the truly important emails, there may simply be too little time to do them all justice. Editors have a particularly hard time — nowadays everyone wants to be a writer and the barriers to doing so are getting lower all the time.

Nonetheless, some people are better than others at answering emails. And not everyone has the excuse of being deluged.

For me, an unanswered email does provoke rage, but I also know that this isn’t always appropriate. So I try and channel that rage into curiosity. As someone who moves heaven and earth to reply to emails and keep a tidy inbox, I am genuinely curious as to how those who do not do the same. Do they look at my email and make a conscious decision not to reply? Do they mean to but forget? Do they not care? Do they have their inboxes configured in such a way that they simply miss important emails? Is it laziness that leads to unanswered emails? Is it self-preservation? Is it being overwhelmed?

Well, I want to find out.

A Year of Unanswered Emails will recount a year in which I refuse to accept that the reason for an unanswered email must remain a mystery. In that year I will not only try harder than ever to get responses to emails that I might once have accepted will never be answered, I will actively track down those who have not answered. If an email doesn’t work, I will call them, if a phone call doesn’t work I will send a letter, if a letter doesn’t work I will visit their workplace.

Yes I know that sounds like stalking! I will of course cease all contact if and when someone tells me to go away. But what I am really looking for in this year is to meet up with my absent interlocutors and find out why they never responded. I’d like to look at their email inboxes to try and understand how it happens. I’m not looking for apologies — I’m looking to understand.

The book will probably make me look like a weirdo. Hopefully though, it will also yield some interesting stories about the everyday pressures that the ever-full inbox exerts. In this sense the book will pioneer a new mode of being — passive-aggressive empathy. My rage will be channelled into an effort to understand the other, even though the motivating anger can never be fully suppressed.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this Impossible Book, why not browse through the rest of the series here?

Also, please recommend and share it on Medium or elsewhere. I would love to read your comments too.

Many thanks!

Finally, here’s an alternative cover:



Keith Kahn-Harris
The Impossible Books of Keith Kahn-Harris

Professionally curious writer and sociologist. Expert on Jews and on heavy metal — interested in much more. For more about me go to http://www.kahn-harris.org