While some people mind much less about how quickly a friend responds, many people ride an emotional roller coaster when a message isn’t immediately answered, whether a direct text or a social-media DM. It’s driven by the effect of 24/7 ‘digital availability’, a socially ingrained expectation that a recipient is constantly around and should immediately shoot back a reply.
A 24-hour burden
The rise of rapid-fire communication technology has bred the expectation of people being always on and constantly available. Simply, there are more ways to get in touch with people than ever, and the pressure to respond has become increasingly normalized. We seemingly always can reply, so we ‘should’.
The apps and social media platforms on our phones have ingrained 24/7 communication into our daily lives. Speedy responses have become a paradigm in the workplace, since a delay in writing back to the boss reflects poorly on you.
A nagging feeling
Our phones give us an illusion of proximity; a friend in another continent feels only a simple text away. Yet senders don’t know what’s going on with the person at the other end of their message.
So, when a text goes unanswered, some people get really upset, because they’re projecting their own anxieties onto the situation.
This can push a sender’s anxiety into overdrive, increasing feelings of bitterness, thinking recipients have their phones on them all day, anyway.
Part of what can exacerbate these nagging is that there’s no widely agreed-upon etiquette for behavior in a world of 24/7 digital availability. This is because technology has “far outpaced our ability to develop norms and expectations”, says Cheshire.
He adds that the emergence of new forms of interaction that swap face-to-face verbal communication with nonverbal written cues which have to be deciphered and contextualized with our own imaginations can add to confusion and anxiety.
These new challenges can compound differences in communication habits that have existed among people for a long time.
It’s possible some people simply naturally expect a snappy reply because of their nature. There are also “situational differences”, in which some texts are particularly important for the sender, and drive the feeling of urgency.
But according to Cheshire, the way different people react to delayed replies may once again come back to those discrepancies in social norms around modern communication.
In a 24/7 digital world, however, not everyone may agree on who you should contact, why and how prompt a response should be. None of these notification norms are formalized or set in stone.
“This is part of that over-attribution effect when we are online – I don’t know what’s going on with you, so I project what’s going on with me onto you and your situation.”
Can we just let it go?
If you’re getting angry about a slow reply, it may help to internalize why you’re beginning to work yourself up, remembering you’re projecting your own situation and subsequent anxieties on the recipient, when you don’t actually have concrete information.
The standards you set for what’s an ‘acceptable’ response time are yours, not a universal edict. Regardless, feeling that urgency may just be life in the 24/7 connected world.
The fact that people are talking more about these feelings could help move that needle; norms, adds Cheshire, come from “open discussions”.
So, if you have a friend whose communication patterns are driving you crazy – whether as sender or recipient – perhaps an honest chat might be in order.