LONDON “Step away from the phone,” I said to myself as my eyes bore down at my iMessages. I felt heavy with the burden of anticipation; my heart racing as my foot tapped in a frenzied motion. A feeling of intense malaise came upon me, and I glared at the screen longing for a grey bubble to appear on my screen.
The problem? I was waiting for a reply to a text message I’d sent 20 minutes ago to the guy I was dating. The lack of an instantaneous response sent my mind into overdrive. This delay was too long in a world of instant messaging; a world where immediate gratification is not merely expected, it’s normal.
20 minutes turned into 40, and 40 turned into three hours. As time marched on, my mind raced a mile a minute. What was wrong? Did my text message offend? In hindsight, these thoughts might sound peculiar (unreasonable, even) but I, like many of my peers, have grown accustomed to the relief and reassurance afforded by an instant response.
No news isn’t always good news
In my world of instant messaging, no news is definitely not good news. I know that each and every person I communicate with has their phone either on their body, or nearby, at most points throughout the day. My anxiety also rears it’s head while using Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp where I find myself needing a realtime response. I check to see when friends were last online to gauge how likely they are to respond. If they were last active five minutes ago, and take three hours to respond, then something is up, right?
At work, most of my interactions with colleagues take place over Slack. When I see the little green dot appear next to a colleague’s name, I know they’re active and online. And if I don’t get an immediate response I wonder if I have done something wrong. More often than not, the person in question was simply busy or they momentarily stepped away from their computer.
Since the inception of smart phones, my expectations have increased dramatically. Back in 2008, when Facebook Chat had just launched, I would be perfectly satisfied if someone responded to me several days after my initial message. According to Facebook Messenger’s Director of Product Management Peter Martinazzi, this is because instant messaging used to be “more like email”. “As technology got better, we saw that people would start chatting back and forth in realtime.” Martinazzi told Mashable. The launch of iMessage in 2011 brought in an extra dimension to realtime messaging anxiety with the addition of read receipts and the appearance of the grey ellipsis when someone is typing.
The pressure to respond
In addition to the need for an instant response, I also feel pressure to reply as promptly as is physically possible, often before I’ve had the chance to formulate a considered response. Any delayed response on my part is usually because I no longer want to date someone, or because I am irritated by a message. My behaviour is not the exception.
“I feel a lot of anxiety about responding quickly to messages,” says Mandy Menaker, Head of PR at the business networking app Shapr. “The anxiety is only one-way, I dont mind a delay in hearing back from colleagues, but assume a personal responsibility to always be on top of every project and message.”
This anxiety also extends into Menaker’s personal texts. “Last night I got a text from a friend while cooking and got so wrapped up in responding to her text immediately, that I missed a critical step in my recipe.”
Take a step back
Though it is initially difficult to do, I’ve found it hugely helpful to create some distance between me and my phone or laptop. Whether that means deleting certain apps, or physically leaving your device in a different room, getting some space gives a sense of perspective.
Nicky Lidbetter CEO of Anxiety UK told Mashable that if instant messaging is causing you anxiety, then it’s important to switch off and relax. “We would suggest distraction techniques such as creative activities, like knitting or painting, getting outside and taking a walk or other forms of exercise, mindfulness practice such as Headspace,” says Lidbetter.
Telling yourself that “maybe they got busy” isn’t unrealistic. Just remember that even with the best intentions in the world, people aren’t always able to respond as quickly as they and you might hope.