Silence can be a deliberate communication. One woman said of a text she received from a friend, “I was so annoyed, I’m just not responding. I just didn’t answer.” Yet in other cases, silence doesn’t mean anything; it results from circumstances. A young woman thought her boyfriend’s delay in responding meant he was angry at her. It turned out his phone battery had run out.
Perceived metamessages of annoyance can snowball, whether or not they were intended. A student recounted in an interview a Facebook message exchange with a friend that, she felt, should have been straightforward but became complicated. She sent a message suggesting they go running later than planned. The friend messaged back, “I guess that’s okay. Fine, see you then.” That little opener, “I guess,” and the unenthusiastic “okay” seemed to imply that she wasn’t thrilled with the change of plans. So the student responded, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be difficult. I’m more flexible than I made it sound. I can actually just do one o’clock like we planned.” That set off a back-and-forth that went four rounds—“No no no let’s do the time you wanna do,” “No no no let’s do the time we said.” Hair-tearing exchanges like these are particularly common among girls and women because, as the student pointed out, they often worry about coming across as too demanding and hurting others’ feelings.
My student Holly DiClemente explained how her peers make creative use of digital features to avoid hurting friends’ feelings. One example is ghost reading—reading a message without opening it, by just reading the preview in the text app, or on your lock screen. If a phone automatically sends “read receipt” notices to let others know their messages have been opened and, presumably, read, ghost reading comes in handy to manage the implied metamessages. If you see from the text notification that a friend is asking if you want to hang out, and you don’t want to but you don’t want to hurt her feelings, you can open the message later and tell her you’re sorry you just got it. The “read receipts” feature can also be used to show you’re mad; it lets someone know you’ve read their message and are intentionally not responding—a visual virtual snub. But there, too, they might think you’re mad when you’re not. Maybe you saw that the message was long, so you put off replying until you’d have more time to read it, or to write a thoughtful response.
Metamessages—intended or not—can reside in just about any aspect of digital communication, even something as minor and automatic as listing recipients’ names when sending email. If you enter the addresses on the “to” or “cc” line, everyone who receives it can see not only who else is getting the message but also what order you put the names in. Two women I interviewed together, Lucy McBride and Annie Finnell, pointed out some of the resulting metamessages: “You feel special when you’re the first one on there,” Lucy said. Annie agreed: “You do. And you feel not special when you’re the last one.” Lucy added, “Because if you’re dead last, it’s like they were thinking, ‘Who am I forgetting?’” To avoid offending those whose names come later or last, you can put recipients’ email addresses on the “bcc” line. But that sends a metamessage, too. It’s what people do when the list of recipients is very long, so “It looks like you’re inviting all of Northwest Washington!”