I'm just finishing up this paper: Cramton, Catherine D. "The Mutual Knowledge Problem and Its Consequences for Dispersed Collaboration." Organization Science 12 (June 2001): 346-371 (pdf). It's worth posting all of the notes for it when I finish them. But there's this one passage that's been sticking in my head all day:
One of the biggest challenges team members faced was interpreting the meaning of their partners' silence. Over the course of the project, it became clear that silence had meant all of the following at one time or another: I agree. I strongly disagree. I am indifferent. I am out of town. I am having technical problems. I don't know how to address this sensitive issue. I am busy with other things. I did not notice your question. I did not realize that you wanted a response.
The context for that passage, and that paper, is investigating how a team of students distributed across continents completes a class project. But anyone who has worked on a team with some people here, some people there, and so on, would recognize it. I recognize that situation—but not until after point it out. When it's pointed out in this way, and then I reflect on it, I always assume that other people who aren't in the same place that I am in interpret any silences that I give or leave, intentionally or unintentionally, in the same way that I do. I know what I mean, why don't they? Of course this is stupid on its face. How could they?
So the trick seems to be not just designing your explicit interactions with other people, but also the implicit ones—not just the things you say, but the spaces in between. My habit is to avoid extra emails where possible, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to spare some extra one to ask the question: are we understanding each other?