It’s the end of a busy Monday at uni, consisting mostly of non-stop socialising. There are hardly words to describe the relief of being in the flat all by myself, my ass having finally returned to its natural habitat that is the sofa. Everything’s in place – trashy TV, hot chocolate, fluffy socks, and solitude. I grab the remote and begin my well-deserved me-time.
Suddenly, my phone goes off. I check it (it might be my mum checking up on me or my sister sending a picture of my dog doing something cute), but it’s a friend asking me if I want to meet next Wednesday. This friend is somebody who I’m not close enough to to not put any effort into my reply – I must think carefully about what I say and how I say it, and then of course, proofread it. I’m knackered so I leave it for the moment, careful not to post anything on Facebook or Instagram in a bid to stay off the radar.
The end of the week draws near, and I’ve since received four or five messages that I haven’t replied to. I take a deep breath and get to it. Great! I’ve managed to respond to everyone who was looking to speak to me, and now I can relax. I make my hot chocolate and put on the TV, and just as I’m about to start watching Bake Off, my phone tings to indicate a reply. And then it tings again. I ignore it this time, but finally check it after I receive another message minutes later.
Replying to messages is a bit like playing whack-a-mole. You try to respond to one before another appears, and, like the game, you often can’t keep up. Before you can get rid of one, two or three more moles, er, messages, are brought to your attention.
And I feel this way because there now exists an etiquette established on intrusion. It’s bad for both the sender and the receiver. Most of the time if I take ages to reply (or forget to altogether), it has absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about the person who sent the message. It’s usually because I want to be alone for a little while. I also have social communication issues that require me to concentrate on how I’m saying things to people, and that takes tremendous effort. I’ve been on the receiving end (pun intended) of being ignored. It doesn’t feel good, even though I’m aware of the reasons why I do it myself. Some people get paranoid and distressed. Others think they’ve done something wrong or that the sender’s done something wrong. Personally, I’ve felt threatened by somebody who I was trying to take some space from, but couldn’t, because I got messages saying ‘I’ve seen you’ve been online so could you please answer your phone.’
We’ve been conditioned to believe that our time and space is owed to someone; not just while we’re at work, socialising, or at uni, but literally 24/7. It’s all very well to turn your phone off for the evening, but when you turn it on the following morning you will have to face the music, or else you’re a bitch or you’ve left someone feeling upset and neglected.
We need to start looking beyond read receipts and ‘last active’ updates. We need to stop with the assumptions that everyone is available on demand. We’re people, not TV boxsets. And because it’s all so new, we are ignorant of the effects it’s having on our minds or on the minds of the upcoming generation. We must endeavour to obliterate this assumed entitlement for other people’s time that’s bled into our culture, something that generations before us never had to contend with.
I don’t have all the answers, but I can say that it’s ok to take time to get back to someone. That we all forget from time to time due to the unyielding demands of modern life. Remind people that you and others shouldn’t be shamed for wanting space. And for those who sent the message and are awaiting a reply – it’s natural to feel isolated and paranoid; it’s how society operates now. But if we work on setting boundaries for our online interactions, just as we do in person, we may actually be able to enjoy instant messaging more than we fear it.
[Sarinah O’Donoghue – @bloomsburybitch]