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People are happy to make the trade to gain the ability to respond whenever they feel like it.* * *While you may know, rationally, that there are plenty of good reasons for someone not to respond to a text or an email—they’re busy, they haven’t seen the message yet, they’re thinking about what they want to say—it doesn’t always feel that way in a society where everyone seems to be on their smartphone all the time.A Pew survey found that 90 percent of cellphone owners “frequently” carry their phone with them, and 76 percent say they turn their phone off “rarely” or “never.” In one small 2015 study, young adults checked their phones an average of 85 times a day.When the affair ends messily, it reveals not only how the bubble of romantic expectations can be popped by reality’s needle, but also how weak digital communication is as a scaffolding on which to build an understanding of another person.
And because metamessages are implied rather than stated, they can be misinterpreted or missed entirely.
The defining feature of conversation is the expectation of a response. In person, or on the phone, those responses come astoundingly quickly: After one person has spoken, the other replies in an average of just 200 milliseconds.
In recent decades, written communication has caught up—or at least come as close as it’s likely to get to mimicking the speed of regular conversation (until they implant thought-to-text microchips in our brains).
As much as these communication tools are designed to be instant, they are also easily ignored. Texts go unanswered for hours or days, emails sit in inboxes for so long that “Sorry for the delayed response” has gone from earnest apology to punchline.
People don’t need fancy technology to ignore each other, of course: It takes just as little effort to avoid responding to a letter, or a voicemail, or not to answer the door when the Girl Scouts come knocking.