How It Became Normal to Ignore Texts and Emails

Digital messages mimic the speed of real conversation, but often what people like best is the ability to put them off.

An iPhone screen with notifications of more than billions of emails and texts
Alexey Boldin / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The defining feature of conversation is the expectation of a response. It would just be a monologue without one. 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). It takes more than 200 milliseconds to compose a text, but it’s not called “instant” messaging for nothing: There is an understanding that any message you send can be replied to more or less immediately.

But there is also an understanding that you don’t have to reply to any message you receive immediately. As much as these communication tools are designed to be instant, they are also easily ignored. And ignore them we do. 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 punch line.

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. As Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University who studies language and technology, puts it, “We’ve dissed people in lots of formats before.” But what’s different now, she says, is that “media that are in principle asynchronous increasingly function as if they are synchronous.”

The result is the sense that everyone could get back to you immediately, if they wanted to—and the anxiety that follows when they don’t. But the paradox of this age of communication is that this anxiety is the price of convenience. People are happy to make the trade to gain the ability to respond whenever they feel like it.

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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. Combine that with the increasing social acceptability of using your smartphone when you’re with other people, and it’s reasonable to expect that it probably doesn’t take that long for a recipient to see any given message.

“You create for people an environment where they feel as though they could be responded to instantaneously, and then people don’t do that. And that just has anxiety all over it,” says Sherry Turkle, the director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It’s anxiety-inducing because written communication is now designed to mimic conversation—but only when it comes to timing. It allows for a fast back-and-forth dialogue, but without any of the additional context of body language, facial expression, and intonation. It’s harder, for example, to tell that someone found your word choice off-putting, and thus to correct it in real-time, or try to explain yourself better. When someone’s in front of you, “you do get to see the shadow of your words across someone else’s face,” Turkle says.

In last month’s viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” a young woman embarks on a failed romantic relationship with a man she meets at the movie theater where she works. They go on only one date in the story; they get to know each other primarily over text. 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.

In an interview, the story’s author, Kristen Roupenian, said the piece was inspired by “the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off.” Indeed, even for the people we already know, we increasingly rely on contextless forms of communication. This puts an unusually large burden on the words themselves (and maybe some emojis) to convey what is meant. And each message, and each pause in between messages, takes on outsize importance.

“Text messages become marks on rocks to be analyzed and sweated over,” Turkle says.

It’s not always easy to figure out what someone meant to convey by using a certain emoji, or by waiting three days to text you back. Different people have different ideas about how long it’s appropriate to wait to respond. As Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, wrote in The Atlantic, the signals that are sent by how people communicate online—the “metamessages” that accompany the literal messages—can easily be misinterpreted:

Human beings are always in the business of making meaning and interpreting meaning. Because there are options to choose from when sending a message, like which platform to use and how to use it, we see meaning in the choice that was made. But because the technologies, and the conventions for using them, are so new and are changing so fast, even close friends and relatives have differing ideas about how they should be used. And because metamessages are implied rather than stated, they can be misinterpreted or missed entirely.

This metamessage opacity spawns thousands of other text messages a year, as people enlist their friends to help interpret exactly what their romantic interest meant by a certain turn of phrase, or whether a weeklong radio silence means they’re being ghosted. (The New Yorker parodied this collaborative textual analysis in a video in which a group of women gather, war-room style, to answer the question “Was It a Date?”)

Features intended to add clarity—like read receipts or the little bubble with the ellipses in iMessage that tells you when someone is typing (which is apparently called the “typing awareness indicator”)—often just cause more anxiety, by offering definitive evidence for when someone is ignoring you or started to reply only to put it off longer.

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But just because people know how stressful it can be to wait for a reply to what they thought would be an instant message doesn’t mean they won’t ignore others’ messages in turn.

Sometimes people don’t respond as a way of deliberately signaling they’re annoyed, or that they don’t want to continue a relationship. Turkle says sometimes taking a long time to write back is a way of establishing dominance in a relationship, by making yourself look simply too busy and important to reply.

But oftentimes, people are just trying to manage the quantity of messages and notifications they receive. In 2015, the average American was receiving 88 business emails a day, according to the market research firm Radicati, but only sending 34 business emails a day. Because—who has the time to respond to 88 emails a day? Maybe someone isn’t responding because they’ve realized the interruption of a notification negatively affects their productivity, so they’re ignoring their phone to get some work done.

I find myself ignoring or procrastinating even important messages, and ones I want and intend to respond to. I had to create a bright-red “Needs Response” email label to battle my own “delayed response” problem. I regularly read texts, think “I’ll respond to that later,” and then completely forget about it.  Working memory—the brain’s mental to-do list—can hold only so much at once, and when notifications get crammed in with shopping lists and work tasks, sometimes it springs a leak.

“A lot of the time what’s happening is people have five conversations going on, and they just can’t really be intimate and present with five different people,” Turkle says. “So they kind of do a triage, they prioritize, they forget. Your brain is not a perfect instrument for processing texts. But it will be interpreted as though it really was a conversation, and so you can hurt people.”

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Still, even though instant written communication can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, people prefer it. Americans spend more time texting than talking on the phone, and texting is the most frequent form of communication for Americans younger than 50.

While texting is popular worldwide, Baron, of American University, thinks that a strong preference for communication that can be easily ignored is a particularly American attitude. “Americans have far fewer manners in general in their communication than a lot of other societies,” she says. “The second issue is a real feeling of empowerment. I think we have become a version of power freaks, not just control freaks.”

In a survey Baron conducted in 2007 and 2008 of students in several countries including the United States, the things that people said they liked most about their phones were often related to control. One American woman said her favorite thing was “Constant communication when I want it (can also shut it off when I don’t).”

“What I have seen in this country, and I don’t know if it’s a national trait, is people wait until they think they have the perfect thing to say, as though relationships can be managed by writing the perfect thing,” Turkle says. “And I think that is something we pay a very high cost for.”

In Baron’s survey, people also mentioned feeling controlled by their phones—bemoaning how dependent they were on the devices, and how the constant connectivity made them feel obligated to respond.

But texts and emails don’t create as big of an obligation as phone calls, or a face-to-face conversation. When young adults are interviewed about why they don’t like making phone calls, they cite a distaste for how “invasive” they are, and a reluctance to place that burden on someone else. Written instant messages create a smokescreen of plausible deniability if someone doesn’t feel like responding, which can be relieving for the hider, and frustrating for the seeker.

More than anything, what the age of instant communication has enabled is the ability to deal with conversation on our own terms. We can respond right away, we can put it off for two days, or never get around to it at all. We can manage several different conversations at once. “Sorry, I was out with friends,” we might say, as an excuse for not texting someone back. Or, “Sorry, I just need to text this person back real quick,” we might say while out with friends.

As these things become normal, it creates an environment where we are only comfortable asking for slivers of people’s distracted time, lest they ever obligate us to give them our full and undivided attention.