I got my first phone at thirteen, and it took only a few hours to realise there was one social rule that couldn’t be broken: If you don’t reply to a text immediately, your entire friendship is in question.
Unless the SMS ended with "don't respond," that is, and then it was usually because sending or receiving one more ten-cent text would get you in trouble with your parents.
That was almost fifteen years ago, and the rule takes noticeably more energy to keep up with. I have personal conversations taking place over text, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, Slack, and email. Some conversations are with the same friend over different platforms: memes sent back and forth over Twitter while a deep discussion takes place on Messenger.
If I don't hear back from someone right away, the next text will usually contain a prelude like "Sorry, got busy" or "I suck at responding right away, but I still love you!" These platitudes are at first glance reassuring, but why do we have to send them at all?
The youngest generations don’t know what it's like to hop over to a friend’s house on a school night with nothing but a promise to be home by dinner time. That sentence makes me feel ancient, but I haven’t even hit thirty yet. It goes both ways; I can’t wrap my head around the adult experience of going out for the day with no tether of communication to tie me back home.
We all know the practical tips to lessen the burden. Turn off notifications. Turn on "Do Not Disturb." Don’t check certain apps on weekends. But if we’re still using the next message to apologise for not being immediately available, the problem hasn’t been fixed.
The bigger solution lies in setting expectations. My closest friends know that a "late" text isn’t some passive aggressive sign; when we talk next, it goes unmentioned. My work profiles sit dormant during the weekend, and the people above me know it. My family knows that a missed call probably means that my phone is in another room, not that I’m lying dead in a ditch.
Setting boundaries only works if we communicate what they are and why they’re needed. We’re not computer programs that can be called up at any moment. But we are complex human beings who often read into the slightest social cues. I can’t be physically, emotionally, and socially available at all times, and I shouldn’t have to be. In fact, allowing myself the room to breath means that the conversations that do happen end up with more of my attention and focus. And as a bonus, energy isn’t wasted on wondering if being left on read is a personal slight.
At risk of sounding even older than this post already makes me feel: put the phone down. You’ll be better off for it.