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Am I Allowed To Ignore Texts Without Feeling Bad?

Some days, texting feels like a chore.

by Kelsey Yandura
June 1, 2021 | Living
woman overwhelmed with messages on phone. rewire pbs love texting
Credit: Good Studio // Adobe

I had a particularly frustrating interaction a few weeks ago. 

After failing to text a friend back, I received chastisement the next day: 

"Well, I guess I never mattered to you anyway." 

They meant it as a joke, but it made me want to scream. I had been buried under a pile of to-dos the day before, racing to meet a deadline. My non-response was not indicative of my care for them. It had nothing to do with them. 

The truth is, I was (and often am) overwhelmed by my phone. Depending on the day and my overall level of stress, any text that requires more than an "lol" feels daunting. And yet texts like the one I received from my friend leave me feeling compelled to exert myself anyway, afraid of the social consequences of being "bad at texting." 

When I think about it further, I am left sipping a cocktail of emotions — confusion, anger and helplessness among them. The fact that anyone, anywhere, at any time can demand my attention simply because they have my phone number feels unfair. 

Am I allowed to ignore texts without feeling bad? What larger phenomena are at play here? 

We all have a limited capacity for texting

Well, to start, I don't hate texting. Sometimes, it's fun and connective, especially when I'm talking with people who make me laugh. However, on some days, texting feels like a chore. 

This up-and-down relationship with texting is due to my fluctuating personal capacity. 

Psychologist and research scientist Michelle Drouin explains that while it's human to desire socialization and connection, it's also human nature to be overstimulated. 

"Extrovert or introvert, at some point everyone will reach their limit," Drouin said. "Everyone's is different, depending on the day or hour." 

Part of the reason device communication can so quickly become overwhelming is that it's such an intimate form of communication.

"Texting can intrude on your life at any moment," she said. "You could be doing anything, and then that person suddenly gets some kind of claim on your bit of brain power."

Social expectations are stressful 

Digital interactions are also often fraught by unspoken (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations. 

Some believe it's etiquette to respond within 24 hours. Others within 20 minutes. Others that it's appropriate to respond in kind — i.e. a long text deserves a thoughtful and perhaps equally long response. A joke necessitates a reaction, even if just an eye roll. A selfie should be met with a compliment. 

"A lot of it is uncharted territory without clear norms," said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "There are few external social conventions." 

These expectations can vary depending on the relationship, which can be stressful to navigate. 

woman overwhelmed with phone. rewire pbs love texting
While it's human to desire socialization and connection, it's also human nature to be overstimulated.  |  Credit: Syuzann q // Adobe

Thankfully, our closer relationships tend to have a higher degree of grace for texting faux pas. 

"The people closest to you are often the most tolerant of these types of expressions," Drouin said. 

"It's the people that we're building new relationships with or those relationships are a little bit more tenuous that I think those social conventions in that sense of reciprocity really exist more for." 

So you have more degrees of freedom to "mess up" with a relative or close friend or loved one than with the distant in-law or work colleague or new relationship. With the latter, it can feel like the Wild West. 

We can teach people how to text us 

The good news is, we can teach people what to expect from us, on our terms. 

When I respond immediately to a text, I'm teaching the person on the other end of the line what to expect from me. 

A friend once told me, "Kelsey, you need to stop texting people back so quickly." I was sheepish, but she was right. As a gig worker with a MacBook, my messages are always open on my screen, and I often respond with lightning speed.

Karla Klein Murdock, professor of cognitive and behavioral science at Washington and Lee University, suggests that we can start finding balance by setting our own boundaries around texting, then re-training the people in our lives to expect a different rhythm from us. 

Murdock suggests letting people know: "I really feel like I need a little bit of distance from my phone. If you don't hear from me right away, it's not personal." 

Take sacred space

In order to enforce those boundaries, it's important we are able to find space away from the buzzing of our phones. These phone-free (or even notification-free) zones can last 15 minutes or a whole day, depending on the person. 

For me, going for a run can be the most soothing part of my day, in part because I turn off my notifications. Even though my phone is with me, I take all pressure off myself to be present for others. It's a big recharge. 

Drouin calls this "social economizing"— the task of taking an inventory of and appropriately managing your social energy.

"We only have so much time within a day, and we need to make decisions about what is a good time investment for us and what isn't...If you are spending time on things that don't really matter to you, that's less time that you have to spend building really valuable relationships or doing things you love. It's an opportunity cost." 

Have grace for others

When I received that inciting text from a friend, I was more than a little annoyed.

However, Drouin illuminated a perspective that helped me take a deep breath: there's a chance my friend reacted negatively because they were feeling vulnerable.

"Right now, it's a really tough time," Drouin said. "Someone may send you a text that sounds really minor to you, but they might be reaching out and saying, 'I need you, but I don't know how to say I need you.'"   

These little bids for affection are often a pursuit of connection, which is a very human motivation. I am under no moral obligation to answer, and I have to take care of myself before I take care of them. However, this dose of empathy was soothing for me.

Moving forward, I'm choosing to remember that texting back is a social norm, not a moral obligation. I may not always have the capacity to meet someone else's expectations, but I can do my best to reshape my relationship with both my phone and my fellow texters. 

Kelsey Yandura
Kelsey Yandura is a freelance writer, editor and journalist based out of wherever the nearest library is (usually Denver).
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