A confession: when I was in my first few years of college, I often neglected to respond to people who contacted me.
I sent thank-yous, of course, to family and friends, primarily because my mother would have known and chided me if I didn’t. I kept in touch with people I cared about. But sometimes when someone reached out to me for a bit of information, or simply to say hi, I just…didn’t respond.
It wasn’t out of malice. Quite the contrary, in fact. I considered many of those emails and missives important and meaningful. I meant to respond–to the old friend from freshman year who’d read a column of mine in the newspaper, to an acquaintance from class asking me a question about homework, to the occasional communications I received from people I knew through the campus Christian group.
But I didn’t. Why? Well, I was busy, for one thing. And so when I looked at those emails, I said to myself, “I need to respond to those,” and then somewhere between the really vital stuff like getting to class on time and writing essays I shoved them to the back of my mind. They lingered there for a time and then slowly faded, and it wasn’t until later–confronted by those names at the bottom of my inbox–that I winced and thought, well, it’s too late to send something now.
The truth is, too, that underneath my genuine distraction rested the knowledge that not responding to those people had no meaningful consequence as far as I could tell. So what if I didn’t write back to a joke or a random query that anyone could answer? So what if I let that one old high school friendship fade? I emailed my mom and my professors back, my campus Christian leaders, and my close friends because they were integral to my life and my pursuits. Those other people left at the bottom of my inbox were–and I flinch saying it now–ancillary.
I’m writing about this because, in the many years since college, I’ve grown out of that habit. And I’ve primarily grown out of it because I know how much it hurts not to receive a response. I’ve sent earnest prayer requests and gotten nothing but silence in return. I have emailed the “Contact Me” address of a publisher, an agent, an editor, a blog and realized after months that my emails might as well have fallen into the void. I’ve attempted to reconnect with old friends or ask a church member something to no end.
This doesn’t happen often, but it’s happened enough to make me regret my cavalier non-responsiveness back in those days. To clarify, I am in the camp that there are people we can feel free to ignore in our inboxes, like salesmen or habitual boundary-crossers or that one person who only ever sends incoherent forwards written in all caps. But most of the requests I ignored back in the old days weren’t that. They were little things that I deemed largely inconsequential, but that meant a lot to the people who sent them.
I often tell my students that half of success is showing up. It’s true of loving others, too. Show up. When someone reaches out to you, return that contact. If it’s not important, make it important. Otherwise and all too often, we send a message that they’re not worth our time. That they aren’t significant enough. Personally and professionally, we’ve got to do better.
I recently had to contact a woman in my neighborhood to do some work in our house. I sent her an email late at night asking for an estimate, then got off my phone and assumed I’d hear from her in a week, if indeed I ever heard from her at all. When you’re in the getting-estimates process of any sort of task, you quickly realize that 1/3 of your prospects will knock themselves off the list simply by never calling back.
When I woke up at 5:30 the next morning, there was already a response from her in my inbox. Surprised, I scrolled down and read it, then gave a surprised laugh at the little note she’d attached to the end: “Hi, sorry for the late response! I was with my family!”
Late? Late? She sent it less than a day after I requested it! She sent it before she went to bed that night! And the fact that she did – and, bless her heart, apologized for being “late” – imperceptibly elevated my opinion of her before we’d ever even met. If nothing else, I felt cared for as a customer. I felt like a priority. And that, my friends, is good business.
It’s good servanthood, too.
So respond. Please respond. Write thank yous for the gifts you receive (or even text if you’re so mired in the information age that you can’t bring your fingers to pick up a pen). Answer little, inconsequential requests. Get back to the people you say you’ll get back to. Even “sorry, I’m swamped right now” counts. Something. Anything.
Because the alternative is ignoring people. And aside from that being a contradiction of our call as loving servant-followers, it’s just plain hurtful. Why not change what requires so little of us?