My friend Clare and I have fallen into a rut of late-replying. You know how it is.
Days and weeks go by between flurries of WhatsApps, our essay-length responses peppered with stricken exclamations of "I'm the worst!". We’re quite equally matched in our lateness, which only exacerbates the problem. We bat guilt and forgiveness back and forth like a game of apology tennis.
Recently, after maybe our 10th such exchange, a revelation struck me. Actually that’s a lie, my boyfriend pointed it out after I sat up in bed, yet again, and screamed: "SHIT I forgot to message Clare back!" Neither of us is The Worst. Maybe what we are, is pen pals. Perhaps ours is supposed to be a friendship conducted via long, chewy dinner conversations with sporadic epistles in between, and perhaps that’s absolutely fine. If anything, it sounds nice.
So why do we both feel so guilty?
To be clear, before we go any further – it’s not that I don’t want to speak to my friends. I do, more than anything! I want to talk to my friends more than literally anything else I could and should be doing, and that’s the problem.
I regularly lose whole mornings to playing catch-up on digital admin. Time that should be spent on my actual work, the stuff that pays my bills, or other vital tasks like typing "Grenson Nanettes sz7" into eBay, is regularly given over to the work of maintaining connections – from close and cherished friendships to acquaintances that have never made it beyond Twitter. For years I’ve been a diligent correspondent, but recently I've hit a wall. DMs slide in unanswered, comments slip by unliked. Every 'mindful' hour I spend trying to read a book or take a bath is tainted by the faint, scratching guilt at the back of my brain that says I still haven’t messaged so-and-so back about that thing. Sometimes I’m scared to open messages at all, because I can’t take back the 'seen' once they’ve seen it.
And the longer I go, the more insurmountable the task of opening an app and typing another round of "sorry sorry sorry" begins to feel. I hold my hands up and admit defeat; I am failing as my own PA. But I’m not sure I can keep feeling terrible about it, either.
Because really, who gets to decide what qualifies as a 'late' reply in a social context? Why should the quicker person get to set the pace? Unless the message is "We’ve been invited to an underground Rooney/Vardy grudge match, let me know by 2pm if ur in!!" or "THEY’RE GIVING OUT FREE GRENSON NANETTES DO YOU WANT SOME?", the definition of 'late' is as variable and subjective as each day, topic or friendship. By self-flagellating whenever we take a little time to respond to someone, aren’t we reinforcing the idea that anything short of instantaneous attention is rude? There’s a fine line between practising good manners and piling on unnecessary pressure – on ourselves, and on everyone else to keep up.
"Part of the problem is that there is no standard when it comes to frequency of contact, so it’s hard to know whether your own expectations are too demanding or not," says Victoria Turk, author of Digital Etiquette: Everything You Wanted to Know about Modern Manners But Were Afraid to Ask. "Even within the same friendship group, you may have one person who is very trigger-happy on WhatsApp and another who prefers to check their messages just once a day. Both are fine, but I think you should calibrate your expectations according to what you know about each of your friend’s habits."
Jessica, 31, was resoundingly "told off" by a friend who lives abroad for not replying to texts fast enough. "They were a handful of generic messages, including a happy birthday text, all sent in the middle of the night my time because of the time zone difference," she says. While the friend took her slow replies as an insult, for Jessica it was simply a side effect of life. "I'm just a person battling to get to inbox zero – not just on Gmail, but WhatsApp, Insta DM, Slack and Twitter," she says. "I don't think it's fair to put such high digital demands on our friends."
However, our share-happy reflex can come back to bite us. "I've had friends bitch to me about other friends not replying to them but posting on their Insta stories," says Jessica. "I think because we can see what other people are doing all the time, we think They have time to reply to me or They SHOULD be replying to me. But that's not respectful of other people's boundaries and says more about our own insecurities in a friendship."
It’s surely no coincidence that 'boundaries' has emerged as one of 2019’s favourite buzzwords. In a culture where technology has blurred every line that used to separate work and play, public and private, it’s hardly surprising that we’re trying to draw a few of those parameters back in. Still, life can feel cold on the other side of a digital wall of silence. Anika, 29, ended a formerly close friendship with a busy friend after one too many inbox tumbleweeds. "I just stopped the messages to see what would happen if I wasn't the one constantly checking in," says Anika. "That resulted in no messages in nearly two years. So I've now written it off."
Sometimes I look at my parents, who see their best friends perhaps a handful of times a year, supplemented by sporadic phone calls and emails, and I think I'm exceptionally lucky to have such immediate and regular access to my social support network, even while they’re scattered far and wide. But are we too lucky? Maybe our brains just aren't built (I swear I start a sentence a week with those words right now) for so much communication.
In the 1990s, anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar proposed that the average human brain has the capacity to maintain social contact with 150 people. Later he developed the theory into layers, explaining that we devote about 40% of our social time and emotional capital to "an inner core of about five shoulders-to-cry-on" and a further 20% to the next 10 people who are most important to us. An analysis of 35 million people’s telephone call history from 2007 closely corroborated Dunbar’s theory. But then, that was 2007. Back when a spontaneous phone call still prompted feelings of affection, not "Shit, who died?"
Twelve years on, social media has thrown Dunbar’s pie chart into disarray. Those shoulder-to-cry-on friends aren’t necessarily the ones commanding the most of our time and emotional capital anymore. There are friends of friends, former colleagues, work connections turned coffee dates. Peripheral people from whom, in another era, we would have naturally drifted apart now stay firmly tethered to us by the internet.
When tech refuseniks slate the rest of us for being forever glued to our phones, that’s often the nuance they’re missing – that there are real people on the other end of the blinking light. We’re not antisocial; we’re hyper-social. But the way we conduct friendship has mutated in line with modern quirks. There’s the confessional intimacy of a chat window that turns stilted and awkward in a coffee shop. The people you barely bother to see IRL anymore, because they’re so omnipresent in your feeds. Or the beloved friend who has never quite mastered the art of writing an affectionate text, so every interaction ends with a panic that they secretly hate you. With loneliness such a widely documented epidemic just now, it feels like a dick move to brag about having too many friends – but I’m not sure the two states are mutually exclusive. While some friendships blossom and grow in the digital realm, others need fresh air to thrive.
So how can we manage overflowing inboxes without damaging valuable friendships?
Vicki Turk advocates using a similar approach to social admin as to work admin. "If you’re regularly inundated with messages, it’s more productive to check them only when you choose to, rather than responding to every notification," she says. "And if you’re easily distracted, keeping your phone in your pocket or bag, rather than face-up in front of you, is a good idea."
We could even try setting out of offices (like WhatsApp’s away messages or iMessage auto-replies) on our social platforms – though Turk isn’t a fan. "This can come across as a bit pretentious or precious – let’s face it, you’re probably not really that much busier than anyone else. But if you’re really drowning in messages, it may be time to do a bit of an audit by leaving or muting group chats you’re no longer interested in."
And while we might be a way off my dream – a solitary emoji that means "I’m sorry, I love you, I realise this is an innocuous message about a funny cat you saw that reminded you of my great aunt Hilda but I can’t seem to get my shit together enough to reply" – Turk does suggest a 'cheat': "If you don’t have all the information you need to reply to a message properly, or feel you don’t have time to do a 'full' response justice at that moment, you can always send a kind of 'interim' response, essentially saying 'That sounds great, I’m busy now but let’s chat properly later'."
Voice notes can be a lifeline too; they’re far quicker to leave than typing out a message, and hearing your pal’s actual voice feels so much more intimate – all the warm fuzzies of an old-fashioned phone call, without the scheduling demands.
Really though, the best solution we have right now is honesty. "If you’re struggling to keep up, it’s fine to make it known that you enjoy being part of the chat but can’t reply all the time," says Turk. "This way you set a new norm for yourself and can take things at your own pace without offending anyone." You might be doing a few frazzled friends a favour, too.
Let’s remember that the old adage of quality over quantity applies here – it’s up to us to make sure our contact is worth waiting for. "My personal test of the strength of a friendship is whether you can meet up after a long period of no communication and pick up where you left off," says Jessica. "I'd rather be known as a friend who can actually be there for someone, rather than the friend who is constantly texting but not actually saying anything."
Ultimately, it comes down to balance. Honesty, empathy and balance. If one person is putting in all the work to keep a friendship afloat, we can all agree that’s not good. But if you’re both as bad as each other…well, maybe it’s time to agree that neither of you is actually 'bad' at all.