A few years ago, I was dating a man who would take hours — hours! — to respond to my messages. It drove me insane. Naturally, I’d give him hell for it. (I was young and “in love” i.e. completely irrational and selfish — do understand.) During one such tantrum, he gifted me the following thought: if I haven’t replied to you, he said, it means I haven’t looked at my phone. And if I’m not looking at my phone, I’m in my good place.
This I understood. The anti-screentime revolution was in full swing, we were all trying to reclaim ourselves from our phones, myself included. It helped, in my unhinged pining to hear from him, to conjure an image of him absorbed in a book, in a conversation with a friend, in a spell of work, or a nap, or even just a thought.
His gently implied chide was: to expect instant responses from anyone is to hope for them to never be absorbed in their own present. Could any hope be less loving?
That thought’s been coming back to me often. Maybe because I have 34 WhatsApps marked unread to respond to later and 50-something emails from people I like, that I haven’t felt like sitting down with for weeks.
Invariably, when I do respond to such dispatches in wait, I begin with some sort of forgiveness-seeking — “sorry I didn’t reply sooner!” (I’m not) / “sorry I didn’t see this!” (of course I did) / “sorry I haven’t had a chance to reply!” (chances are, chances were plentiful).
To one friend, I recently said: “Will you forgive my 1-month reply time, please?” I really did feel bad — a month feels like too long to let a message sit, especially from a person I like as much as I like him. “Any sooner and I would have suspected something amiss,” he replied. “For the future — take your time, no apology necessary.”
Another friend, sending a check-in text, ended it with: “Ping back in your own time. I quite like sssss-looooo-www messaging.” Gifts. These are gifts.
I too have become a fan of ssss-looooo-www messaging. There’s a small handful of people I’m closest to on earth, with whom daily contact is as effortless as breathing. And then there’s everyone else I know — people I like plenty but would rather talk to slowly, who I’m always hoping will themselves take time to respond, even when I reach out.
For years, I felt guilty about this tendency to let messages sit in wait. I was accused of being “hard to get in touch with” (a criticism I’ve now accepted as fact).
The guilt stemmed from feeling like I was letting down a normal expectation — now that we have our phones in our hands all the time, as I truly do, shouldn’t we be capable of instantly responding to whatever shows up on them?
Adding to the awkwardness is the fact that while I might be non-responsive on email or WhatsApp, I may still be posting on social media, making it amply clear to correspondents-in-wait that I’m not off-grid or terribly busy. I’m sitting around, actually, often just cracking inane jokes and taking selfies.
But mostly, the guilt is created by the platforms themselves, by design features built to create urgency. Like the “seen” that marks an Instagram message that’s been read; like WhatsApp’s “online”, “last seen”, and blue ticks; like Gmail’s “nudges”, which tack bright orange reminders onto old emails: “Received 4 days ago. Reply?” (No, Google. You may own all my data but you don’t yet own my time. Sit down quietly.)
There’s business sense in these platforms building a culture of constant availability. Their profits, to an extent, are based on our need to communicate — so of course they’d heighten that need to fever pitch. And it’s worked. Here I am, basically making apologies for letting down expectations I didn’t myself set.
At 1am Thursday, a stranger messaged me on Instagram asking if I could help with charity work. I saw it and thought: it’s past midnight, I can reply to this tomorrow. A few minutes later, she messaged again: “You could at least reply.” I felt instantly furious — how could anybody feel so entitled to my time? I said I’d planned to — just, in the morning. And she said: “It showed ‘seen’ so I thought you don’t wanna reply.”
And so I remembered to redirect the rage towards Silicon Valley, toward the design teams building this sense of entitlement and the billionaire bosses rewarding those innovations.
I’ll concede that this is a tiny hill to die on. But I’d also encourage you to pan the camera out, and note that this hill forms only one pimple on the Everest that is the Facebook empire’s disregard for our mental and social well-being.
In the last two decades, as we all started carrying smartphones around, it became technologically possible to reach one another instantly. But we never paused to assess the expectations that might come with that possibility and whether we’re on board with them. We never came to cultural consensus on whether we want to be reached as much as we can be, and whether we want to respond as quickly as we technically can.
And we forgot, maybe, the unique opportunities afforded by ssss-looooo-www corresponding — the time to let thoughts swill; the joy of stepping past legato-style daily updates, into reflective catchups about long spans of living; the chance, even, to miss one another.
I know some people will read this and think: What? And that’s fine. This isn’t for you.
This is for my 20-year-old friend who often posts on her Instagram story: “friends, so sorry I haven’t been able to respond to your messages in a couple of weeks” — sister, it’s cool, you don’t have to. This is who you are.
It’s for you, who leave scores of messages unread, resolving to sit with them later in a social mood, but being eaten up by guilt about it nonetheless. It’s for everyone whose personality just doesn’t lend itself to constant reachability, even if the phone in your hand does.
Most of all, it’s for that ex-boyfriend I used to throw tantrums at — my bad, I get it now. And I hope, always, that you’re plenty absorbed.