Instant Reply Culture… And Why I Haven’t Replied To Your Messages

Expecting an instant response is part of the way we work in 2020, but is it asking too much? Sarah explores why she’s left you on read.

Written by Sarah Williams.

I walk around every day carrying a dizzyingly-advanced dystopian-sci-fi computer in my pocket. Every day, I clock up multiple hours of screen time and I send countless messages. I am constantly connected… and yet I frequently fail to connect.

I am notoriously bad at replying to messages… and emails, phone calls, comments and voice notes especially. Honestly, I fear listening to voice notes in case it’s someone yelling at me, because the written word wouldn’t suffice to convey their anger. This is an entirely irrational thought, but it’s there nonetheless.

Although I am constantly in touch with the online ether, I do not want to be.

Being ‘left on read’, blue-ticked, ‘seen’ and apparently abandoned is one of the horrors of the modern age. In a world where ‘instant’ messaging is barely quick enough to keep up with our cultural expectations, failing to immediately reply can feel like a personal affront. A message that’s been read and left to hang is a fast-track to abandonment and anxiety-fuelled fear. 

The reality on the other side of the invisible telephone lines could be any number of things: boiling a kettle for a cuppa, nodding off on the sofa, a long drive, a shift at work. It could even be as simple as not immediately knowing the answer to a question. The likelihood that a friend you were just chatting to is suddenly woefully offended, brimming with hatred and deliberately, spitefully avoiding your contact is distinctly unlikely… and yet it’s often what we assume. We feel like we’re not a priority in their life, that their failure to reply when they’re clearly online is an indictment of your failed relationship. 

Despite all that, our current culture of instant gratification leads us to expect a prompt response. It’s worth considering that your recipient isn’t required to respond at all

I hate reading and writing messages. I find it to be a chore. Sure, some conversations are fun, and others are necessary, but neither compare to face-to-face interaction. I love talking to friends in person; I thrive on conversation where you can vibe off each other, interrupt, share ideas and display the full range of human emotions (rather than the menu of emojis Unicode Consortium have deemed sufficient). For everyone, but especially for the neurodivergent among us, in person interaction is the only true way to understand someone’s meaning. Facial expressions, body language and sighs often tell us more than our actual words – nuance which is intrinsically absent in written messages. 

Short messages, emojis, GIFs and digital-age grammar create a new puzzle of social cues to decode. Although we’re largely used to it in 2020 (none of this is new), it’s still extra layers to unpick from the onion of conventional etiquette. I enjoy talking to my friends, but I do not enjoy messaging them anywhere near as much. At best, I consider online communication to be a necessary tool to keep our friendship alive. At worst, I consider it to be an infringement on my private time that I inadvertently volunteer for by engaging with social media.

The expectation to respond quickly (or at all) leaves me with a weight of guilt and inadequacy when I leave a message unread until I feel like responding. The bold unread message burns whenever I view my inbox, beckoning to be opened, while I cringe at the prospect of starting yet another email with, “Sorry for the late reply.” I doubt I’m alone in feeling that my Facebook Messenger, Instagram DMs, email and WhatsApp inboxes are a burden. There are more people and more platforms than I feel equipped to manage. 

In person, I can find it overwhelming to chat to more than two or three people in a day, before my social battery runs dry. Yet here I am with an ocean of people in my pocket: people I talk to, whose lives I passively interact with via a stream of likes, stories and comments. Even when a message isn’t asking anything of me, it is asking me to reply… and sometimes that is asking too much.

Written by Sarah Williams.

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