Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Since the release of the very first iPhone in 2007, the popularity of text messages (now the primary mode of communication) has skyrocketed. Most of us are glued to our phones, virtually rendering obsolete the concept of “trying to get ahold of someone.” Everyone has become instantly accessible at all times. As a result, those who don’t receive prompt responses to their instant messages are left to wonder if they are being blatantly ignored.

What’s more, as anyone who has forgotten to text back an eager date or a clingy friend (or maybe you are the eager date or clingy friend) knows, humans abhor the feeling of being ignored, imagining that the silence emanating from their devices signifies that the offending parties are either deeply irritated or aloof.

I myself have struggled with explaining to others that occasionally delayed (or even nonexistent) responses to casual text messages is not a matter of ignoring them. For me, it is often an issue at the intersection of personal boundaries and overstimulation.

Simply put, having the whole world in the palm of our hands can cause sensory overload, for some more than others. For this reason, some of us prefer not to fully engage the self-perpetuating social mores of digital communication. We are most likely introverts or highly sensitive people (HSPs) or an anxiety-inducing combination of both. Or maybe we just generally prefer to engage in real-time interactions in the same space. For these sorts of people, non-urgent technological communication occupies a secondary mental space. We prefer to think of digital communication more as an invitation to engage than as a non-negotiable demand on our time and energy.

So how do you "opt-out" of our digital communications culture without causing offense?

01. Respectfully define your boundaries.

I do have a few friends/acquaintances for whom my inability to be readily accessible at any given moment, is, well, a source of frustration. (Personally, I think such people struggle with an “anxious” attachment style, but that’s another subject.) I explained myself to one such friend after she admitted how much it bothered her that I would occasionally take hours, even a day, to respond to innocuous messages.

What we figured out was that she felt it was my responsibility as a close friend to engage within a prompt timeframe, no matter the context. Meanwhile, I considered my (seemingly) erratic digital-communication style to be a reflection of my attitude towards text messaging, not toward her.

My friend gradually came around to tolerating my mentality. She certainly hasn’t made my view her own when it comes to instant messaging, but she respects (albeit begrudgingly) my boundaries, safe in the knowledge that I do not mean to dismiss her.

02. Don’t be unnecessarily dismissive.

Once I realized that I didn’t have to immediately respond to that missed FaceTime call from Aunt Sally or that overly-excited email from the PTA mom, I got a little carried away by my newfound sense of freedom. Unfortunately, I swung to the opposite extreme. I delayed responding to work emails that I should have immediately addressed. I figured pals wanting to know if I would make it to the party didn’t really need to know either way.

Looking back, I regret that I have occasionally disregarded others’ perfectly reasonable requests. Upon reflection, I began working to find a healthy balance between honoring my own boundaries and honoring my commitments to others. In my anxious friend’s case, I humbled myself a bit. I knew that I genuinely valued our friendship, and I didn’t want her to feel my absence too strongly. So, on occasion I snap myself out of introvert mode sooner than I would like, just to let her know that I’m still around and I’m listening. I don’t indulge her anxiety, but I don’t discount it either. 

Recognizing the social pressure to engage instantaneously is acute, and realizing that you don’t necessarily have to conform, can prove incredibly freeing. Determine your own boundaries around digital interaction, while keeping in mind your own wellbeing and that of those in your social sphere. That way, rather than letting technology rule your life, you can let it serve you.

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