Confession: I’m one of “those” people—moderately visible on social media, often fiddling with my phone in empty moments, yet likely to take hours or even days to return texts or calls. In fact, if I don’t reply to your message within the first half hour, it is likely not to happen until much later in the day, if at all. Phone calls? I miss most of them, my cell buried at the bottom of a cavernous purse or buzzing, forgotten, in the other room. If you leave a voicemail, I’ll probably get back to you before the end of the day—at least, I’ll intend to. Facebook messages or direct messages on Twitter, Instagram, etc.? If I’m not online while you’re messaging me, I will likely forget to reply altogether; I’ve been known to “respond” weeks after the fact, with sincere apologies, of course.
“I’m just really bad at it” is my common, self-dismissing excuse. Until recently, I felt the issue was a minor one, remedied by a quick “sorry to respond so late!” since I never mean any malice by my delay and therefore seeing it as a benign and common by-product of a hectic lifestyle. I know my intentions are good and my reasons (busyness, forgetfulness) seem valid to me. No big, right? If people really need me, I’m always, eventually, reachable.
Yet a conversation with a friend recently challenged my nonchalance on the issue. I was tapping away on my laptop when Friend arrived, huffing, frustrated. She had been waiting for a text reply from a friend for several hours. “We’re trying to make plans for next week and he’s not getting back to me. He always does this! Ugh.” Her voice was rife with disapproval. Trying to diffuse the situation, I cracked a joke at my expense. “He couldn’t be worse than me! I always forget to reply to people. It takes me forever.” She glanced up, still clenching her phone, clearly unamused.
“I just don’t understand how people can do that.” Her strong moral tone caught me off-guard.
“Uh, what do you mean?”
“It’s so disrespectful.”
“Oh. Yeah… I don’t know, it’s just a text message…” I was beginning to feel uneasy.
She continued, “People forget that there are human beings on the other side of these messages. They would never ignore people in person the way they ignore messages on their phone.”
Her words struck me for their strange simplicity. Human beings on the other side of these messages.
Yes, of course there are always humans on the other side of the texts, messages, comments, snaps, etc. Yet I realized then how removed it felt it to me, these blue-and-white bubbles on my screen, how lightly those boxes and pixels register in my consciousness. Flimsy and disposable, rather than a real representation of the human sender.
Was my friend fair in her criticism of us slow-texters? Are we truly guilty of a great disrespect as we allow these texts to slip by us? Or are we, as I liked to think, just forgetful, busy people?
People forget that there are human beings on the other side of these messages.
Perhaps the overload of technology serves to falsely flatten our priorities. When I receive a text, it’s simply added to the ever-thickening deck of small, multi-colored boxes on my front screen, messages from friends and family wedging beside equally-sized icons announcing Instagram likes, Facebook comments, and Twitter activity. Unwittingly, the personal and important gets mingled with the inconsequential and annoying. One too many beeps or chirps from my phone will set me on edge, and I’m easily fatigued by the excess, of which the “real/human” messages are a part. This small device, to which I am certainly addicted, is also a source of irritation and distraction. At least once a day, I’ll half-deliberately discard my phone in another room or at the back of my bag, willing the chirpy messages into silence.
While there is probably nothing wrong with disconnecting, often and at length, from the cloistering contact of social media, I now question I shouldn’t be texting more—or, really, more deliberately. That is, I would like to consciously separate my personal relationship from the rest of the technological din. While text messages and phone calls are, of course, a heavily mediated and undoubtedly reduced form of intimacy, they are, as my friend pointed out, a line between two human beings. I would like to do a better job of honoring that. Perhaps some of the general alienation we feel is due to the fact that our communication has become haphazard splattered across multiple platforms and (at least in my case) fragmented by large lags in time between responses.
And don’t we all have those friends who are consistently considerate, thorough, and prompt in their responses to our messages? Don’t we feel respected, appreciated, and appreciative in those highly functional exchanges? As much as we blame technology for dehumanizing us, perhaps a little deliberate re-humanizing in the use of our devices might render our communication a bit more satisfying and useful.
I am going to try to be a better texter. After some thought and experimentation, I’ve pinpointed a few methods to implement a new standard of text-etiquette for myself:
Decrease overall notifications. I have about half a dozen apps that I’ve given permission to send me “push notifications”—and isn’t it the nature of these things to over-notify? I don’t need to know the second that the trend on Twitter shifts to a new hashtag. If my friend clicks the small heart beneath my latest Insta-photo, it will probably be all right if I don’t hear about it in the same moment. I have streamlined my notifications, leaving only the “essentials”—texts, calls, and WhatsApp messages will be all that appears on my front screen, as those are the platforms that my closest loved ones use to contact me. The rest can wait.
Say their name. This one is cheesy but highly effective. When I glance at a text, I repeat the name of the sender to myself under my breath. Awkward? Eh. But it does a lot for me to reify the text from a collection of characters, turning another bit of noise into a genuine connection with a person, an immediate and simple reminder of the “human on the other side.” I usually find myself taking the time to re-read and thoughtfully reply much more quickly after doing this quick re-focusing exercise.
Take a minute. I am torn about this one—we’ve all had people pull out their phones in the middle of a conversation or activity, asking for “just a sec while I reply to this…” Is it inconsiderate to do so in the company of others? It certainly can be, especially if done in excess. However, I think cultivating a little more culture of intentionality in our communication is a healthy thing. Instead of half-fiddling with my phone, sending a quick, poorly-punctuated reply to a message while trying to maintain a conversation with someone in person, I think occasionally pausing to address urgent, personal messages might be an appropriate action. The idea: be fully present in your “face-to-face” interactions, and acknowledge when you need to take a moment to pick up the phone for a deliberate purpose. Give each its due in turn.
Stop excusing yourself as being “bad at communication.” No, you’re not inherently “bad” at communicating; there is no gene that renders you incapable of replying in a prompt and thoughtful manner. You’re probably just undisciplined or over-distracted. If you want to be “good” at it, you can and will be.
Let people know when you’re unavailable. If there are hours when you’re unable to read or reply to messages—i.e., work, family time (sleep?)—Make sure people know this. Respect your own boundaries—no need to slip a peek at your phone during dinner with your significant other. This also applies to running conversations—if you’re about to become unavailable, politely close your exchanges with a quick “heading into a meeting—gotta get off my phone” or your own equivalent. You’d never go suddenly silent in a “face-to-face” conversation—let’s try to cut back on the dangling silences in our texts, too (I have to work hard at this one).
Intentionality, downsizing, and discipline in my technology use is the method by which I hope to leverage my devices. I’ve known others to toss out texting and/or social media altogether and find much fulfillment in that, too—and there’s of course a spectrum in-between every extreme. Whatever your philosophical, practical, and personal position on “the role of technology in society”—here’s hoping we can all find ways to keep ourselves feeling human.
For more articles on technology and culture, read Freedom From Your Smartphone Addiction (Not Really), Breaking Up in a Digital World, Drop the Social Media Cape and Do You Need a Break from Your Smartphone?