A large white woman checks her phone for messages

Awaiting Your Reply

“I texted her forty minutes ago. Why is she ignoring me?”

“Something is seriously wrong with this friendship. I sent that email two days ago, and no response.”

Isn’t Internet communication great? You can click a button, and the other person gets your message — whether it be a few sentences, one emoji, or several pages — right away. And when the other person replies, we get their response immediately. Speak, answer, speak answer — it’s just like having a face-to-face conversation.

Except, it’s not.

If you were having an in-person talk with a friend, and your friend just stopped responding all of a sudden and sat there in silence looking at you, you’d have a pretty good clue that something significant had happened with the conversation, or maybe with your friend’s attention or even health. 

But in a text exchange, email thread or chat window, we can’t see what’s happening with and around the other person. We don’t know what’s unfolding in their lives that minute, that hour, that day, that might get in the way of an immediate response. They might have a family crisis, or an important report to finish, or they might have been in an all-day meeting. They might be separated from any online access. There’s no way for us to know for sure.

Online messages can sometimes offer us an immediate response. Be careful of expecting one. 

There’s another element in play in the timing of online interactions. Answer this for me: How long is a reasonable amount of time in which to answer a text? An email? A friend request?

Someone else will have different opinions about reasonable response times.

You feel that the other person has taken too long, so there must be something wrong. And it’s possible that there is. But they might merely have a different sense of how much time can reasonably pass before a reply.

Try holding off on assuming that you’re being snubbed, or that there’s a crisis, because you’re still waiting for a reply, even if it seems too long for you. It will reduce the anxiety or outrage. 

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Online relationships and the epistolary tradition

We’ve seen the raised eyebrow that greets us when we talk about a relationship that is conducted online, with a person whom we rarely or never meet face-to-face. And we’re all familiar with the part that folks sometimes have trouble accepting: that you can have a healthy, substantive and fulfilling relationship with someone purely through the exchange of text-based messages.* Mixed into that skepticism, I think, is also a sense that an online relationship is faddish. Newfangled. A new manifestation of technology for its own sake. Bound to fail or inherently misguided because it’s contrary to the way people have always naturally talked to each other.

It’s not any of those things.


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Email separation anxiety

As we’ve grown accustomed to having Internet access at all times, we’ve come to expect and rely on it. So it’s not surprising that when the broadband connection goes down, the 3G network fades out, or the email client is acting up, a certain anxiety can set in. Some psychologists have even coined a whimsical term for it: “discomgoogolation.”

Clinical monitoring of heavy web users revealed their brain activity and blood pressure increased markedly when they were cut off. The stress of being disconnected was equivalent to that of running half an hour late for a key meeting, being about to sit an important exam or, in the worst cases, being sacked.


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Navigating conflicts by email

For a long time, I would advise people never to hold emotionally charged conversations by email, because the lack of nonverbal or even vocal cues in a typed message remove too much crucial information from the communication.

My thinking is a little more nuanced now, and it’s useful to consider both the benefits and the shortcomings of email, especially when you’re trying to work through an interpersonal conflict. If you’re feeling angry, anxious or overly negative about a problem with another person, you should consider some of the unique aspects of email and decide whether this method of communication is right for your situation.


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