Since getting my first phone eight years ago — a maroon Env2 — I’ve doled out an insurmountable amount of reasons “Why I Didn’t Text Back.” From the classic “my phone died” to a comprehensive list of all the things I had been doing for the past week and a half, my responses have only become more pitiful with each new iPhone update. I take full responsibility for being an awful texter. I admit to keeping “Do Not Disturb” on for days at a time. I recognize the frustration of having an iMessage conversation end with “delivered” but without a response. But when did being a bad texter become equivalent to being an awful friend, daughter, sister and person? Constant smartphone use has created an expectation of 24/7 accessibility, raising the bar for communication to an unprecedented height. It is no longer a choice to text — it is a responsibility. I am no longer just a bad texter, I am utterly lacking in empathy.
Current (and former) friends reading this article will roll their eyes. “Why is it such a big deal to just answer your phone?” they ask. Only one explanation accurately explains the acute anxiety that texting produces: it makes me claustrophobic. My fear of physical confinement has made me fear taking the ACT, not wanting to be constricted to a desk for four hours or get on an airplane. The feeling of not being able to get out of a place or situation induces me with nausea, and sometimes, slight hyperventilation. The constant pressure to respond immediately — The social claustrophobia of never being able to fully disconnect — fosters a similar feeling of intangible confinement to my phone.
Having our phones on us 24/7 results in an expectation to be incessantly in contact every hour of every day. If you are able to post an Instagram photo at 11:15 a.m., you simultaneously must be available to respond to series of screenshots between your friend and her ex that she sent you 10 minutes prior. Blame it on my specific strand of social anxiety, but never being “off duty” makes me feel like I’m stuck in a proverbial McDonald’s PlayPlace tunnel with a seven-year-old’s vomit at the other end.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good texter. I’m entirely hypocritical when it comes to my own style of communication, given that I hold everyone in my life to extremely high texting standards. If my mom doesn’t respond twenty minutes after I’ve sent a panicked text asking if it’s okay to take DayQuil and Claritin in the same hour, I wonder obsessively what she could possibly be doing. If I ask someone what they are doing that night, am left on “read” and see them out later, I accept it as a full-fledged rejection. Yet my mom could easily be in one of the dozen meetings she is attending that day, and the guy I texted could have dropped his phone in the fountain, or just forgotten to respond. The rules of texting, apparently, don’t just define what kind of communicators we are, they are used by our contacts to interpret our motives, personalities, reliability, humor, chemistry and overall psyche.
The issue we most immediately need to address is the anxiety that stems from being left on “read,” not the failure to respond to every text sent. Instead of jumping to devastating conclusions during a texting hiatus, we need to take an anthropological look at our own generation and ask ourselves if we really want to be the generation to indulge in these new communication “etiquettes.” With our phones in our back pockets, we are constantly juggling an overload of information. A delayed response to “Are you on the quad?” is never as personal as we think. We need to start cutting each other a break.
Texting makes us all feel a little trapped. With the ability to reach anyone at any moment, we no longer have to figure things out by ourselves; we are able to exercise perpetual reliance on others. We can find out if there’s an open treadmill in the gym or if the Green Bean line is too long to wait in before class, all without getting out of bed. Texting blurs the lines between what needs to be conveyed and what doesn’t, causing us to feel responsible for frivolous information, our responses unnecessary, but insisted upon.
I will most likely continue to send you The New York Times’ “Modern Love” columns that made me cry and frantic “alone in the Marketplace” texts, expecting a response. I will also most likely continue to leave messages un-responded to, as will you. I can confidently say I will not meet the expectation of digital communication that has become standard in 2017, now or ever. I am sincerely sorry, however, for the mediocre excuse that appeared on your phone Sunday night — I must not have been getting any service.