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The crippling expectation of 24/7 digital availability

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You sent a text – but it’s been an hour, and your friend hasn’t replied to your message yet. Why are you so angry about it?
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It’s been an hour, and your phone hasn’t pinged as you expected.

You sent off a text, expecting a quick reply, but you’re still waiting. With each minute that passes, you get increasingly irked and resentful. How hard is it to take two seconds and say you’ll respond later? you think. Then, the longer you wait, you start to worry. What if your friend is cross with you, and your message wasn’t welcome? What if you’ve somehow misinterpreted your relationship with them? What if they’re hurt?

While some people mind much less about how quickly a friend responds, many people ride an emotional roller coaster when a message isn’t immediately answered, whether a direct text or a social-media DM. It’s driven by the effect of 24/7 ‘digital availability’, a socially ingrained expectation that a recipient is constantly around and should immediately shoot back a reply.

Why do some people get so upset, especially in an age where many people are taking digital detoxes for mental-health breaks, and others are busy juggling life tasks?

People still communicate in different ways; some are constantly attached to their phones, while others want to disengage from them for chunks of time. But tensions over reply times may also come down to social norms – or the lack thereof. New developments in digital technology have outpaced the formulation of mutually agreed new communication paradigms, so when a text is sent, we're not all responding according to the same ‘rules’.

A 24-hour burden 

The rise of rapid-fire communication technology has bred the expectation of people being always on and constantly available. And we very much are: data from one 2021 survey showed that 30% of Americans say they are ‘almost constantly’ online, especially in the pandemic era.

“It’s a combo of mobile being ubiquitous – most people have mobile phones [with] all the platforms of communication, and therefore are capable of responding right away – and that norms are currently changing,” says Jeff Hancock, professor of communication at Stanford University, and director of its Social Media Lab.

Technology has far outpaced our ability to develop norms and expectations – Coye Cheshire

Simply, there are more ways to get in touch with people than ever, and the pressure to respond has become increasingly normalised, since those platforms of communication are tucked in our pockets, wherever we go. We seemingly always can reply, so we ‘should’. 

Plus, the apps and social media platforms on our phones have ingrained 24/7 communication into our daily lives – which is especially the case with the rise of remote work. Speedy responses have become a paradigm in the workplace, since a delay in writing back to the boss reflects poorly on you. So, whether it’s having to respond work messages on Slack, or posting a photo on Instagram and seeing the likes roll in instantly, “we’ve been conditioned into immediate returns”, says Michael Stefanone, professor of communication at the University of Buffalo, US, who specialises in social networks.

A nagging feeling 

There are many reasons message-senders can get easily annoyed when their phone doesn’t sound with a rapid reply. Our phones give us an illusion of proximity; a friend in another continent feels only a simple text away. Yet senders don't know what's going on with the person at the other end of their message.

So, when a text goes unanswered, “some people get really upset, because they’re projecting their own anxieties” onto the situation, says Hancock. “If I text you and expected a response yesterday, and you don’t respond, I don’t have a lot of information – so I use my imagination. Like, ‘maybe he’s mad at me’; ‘maybe he’s dead’. We don’t have any context.”

This can push a sender’s anxiety into overdrive, increasing feelings of bitterness, thinking recipients have their phones on them all day, anyway – why can’t they just respond with a busy now, talk later, if they were happy to see your name pop up on their screen? These negative feelings can amplify when sending something light ­– think a joke or a meme – which can “seem like a very small act” to the sender, says Coye Cheshire, professor of social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. It’s easy to expect a quick reply to these inconsequential messages – a haha or simple emoji – since a recipient doesn’t need to invest much into the response.

If you're a quick replier, remember you may be projecting your own 'notification norms' onto other people, who see communication standards differently (Credit: Getty Images)

If you're a quick replier, remember you may be projecting your own 'notification norms' onto other people, who see communication standards differently (Credit: Getty Images)

Part of what can exacerbate these nagging, uncomfortable feelings is that there’s no widely agreed-upon etiquette for behaviour in a world of 24/7 digital availability; we don’t have a universally accepted consensus on how long people can take to reply to a message before it becomes ‘rude’. This is because technology has “far outpaced our ability to develop norms and expectations”, says Cheshire.

He adds that the emergence of new forms of interaction that swap face-to-face verbal communication with nonverbal written cues which have to be deciphered and contextualised with our own imaginations can add to confusion and anxiety. This phenomenon, which has emerged in past 25 years with the rise of the internet, has only become worse with the rise of smartphones in the past decade.

‘Notification norms’

These new challenges can compound differences in communication habits that have existed among people for a long time. For instance, pre-internet, some people would return phone calls or letters promptly, while others would take their time – disparities that might evoke similar frustration to the way we feel about a delayed reply to a message today. 

Still, some people get more worked up than others. Why?

It’s possible some people simply naturally expect a snappy reply because of their nature. Hancock calls these “individual differences in need for communication responses”, with some people wanting faster responses generally. He adds there are also "situational differences”, in which some texts are particularly important for the sender, and drive the feeling of urgency.

But according to Cheshire, the way different people react to delayed replies may once again come back to those discrepancies in social norms around modern communication. In many other areas of our lives, we have clearly defined “notification norms” – whom you decide to tell what, and when – that are regarded as ‘correct’. For instance, when you share big news with someone, a prompt congratulations is generally in order; a delayed response may come off as rude.

In a 24/7 digital world, however, not everyone may agree on who you should contact, why and how prompt a response should be. None of these notification norms are formalised or set in stone. “They’re not written down anywhere,” says Cheshire. “For email, you don’t log in and the Terms of Service is, ‘you will respond to all emails in 24 hours’.”

For email, you don’t log in and the Terms of Service is, ‘you will respond to all emails in 24 hours’ – Coye Cheshire

So, it’s possible a person who gets particularly annoyed by a non-response may be projecting their own norms or rules onto others – even acting as if their standards are universal – despite the recipient governing themselves differently.

“I think projection is a huge factor in this, especially because they don't have other context to go on,” says Hancock. “This is part of that over-attribution effect when we are online – I don't know what's going on with you, so I project what's going on with me onto you and your situation.”

Can we just let it go?

In the end, is there anything you can do? Maybe yes, maybe no.

If you’re getting angry about a slow reply, it may help to internalise why you’re beginning to work yourself up, remembering you’re projecting your own situation and subsequent anxieties on the recipient, when you don’t actually have concrete information. And remember: the standards you set for what’s an ‘acceptable’ response time are yours, not a universal edict.

Regardless, feeling that urgency – and the nagging feelings that arise from it – may just be life in the 24/7 connected world.

This may especially be because those social norms that put everyone on the same page about communication remain a moving target, according to Cheshire. But the fact that people are talking more about these feelings could help move that needle; norms, adds Cheshire, come from “open discussions”. That’s especially the case now, he says – and people are talking more about what paradigms should be. So, if you have a friend whose communication patterns are driving you crazy – whether as sender or recipient – perhaps an honest chat might be in order. 

In the meantime, if you find your blood boiling the next time someone leaves your message unanswered, the best solution may be to just put down the phone for a while – being connected 24/7 is stressful enough already.