‘Seen’ It, Done That

There are some days when I get a text or message and I just don’t want to respond. Sometimes I’m busy doing something else terribly important (like watching TV) or sometimes I just need extra time to contemplate a thoughtful reply (like when a friend is having a crisis).

And mostly that’s OK, except when they come in through Facebook Messenger. One careless finger swipe later, and I’m trapped because oh damn, they’ve seen that I’ve seen their message and I never answered and now three hours have gone by, crap.

People who use iMessage have the same problem: If you’ve got your read receipts turned on, the app observes whether you’ve opened the text and promptly reports back to the sender that yes, your message has been seen, time-stamped and all. (Luckily, I don’t have an iPhone, or else I’d probably be more stressed about communication.)

I can see the benefits of receipt confirmation. I used to get really paranoid whenever I had to email final papers or assignments to my professors in college. Did they get it? It’s 40 percent of my grade. It’s been six hours. Why don’t they send me a reply back? “I got it.” That’s all I need! And then I’d go absolutely nuts with anxiety. Sometimes I’d even have to fabricate some excuse to send a follow-up email just to get some kind of reaction.

So I could’ve definitely used some automatic “Seen” confirmations back then.

But in regular life, “Seen” only breeds resentment. You ask some friends to dinner, they look at your message and don’t bother to respond. What does it mean? Why not just say yes or no or maybe? Why leave me hanging? And then you start fabricating all these nightmarish scenarios where everyone hates you and that’s why they’re ignoring all your messages.

OK, so I’m kind of an extreme person under minimal duress.

But that doesn’t change the fact that receipt confirmation adds an extra dimension to our communication that didn’t previously exist: the knowing, loaded silence; that deliberate textual pause that could mean anything from contempt to anticipation. It’s quite different than the general pause between ordinary text messages, where you genuinely don’t know if the person is pondering a response or just hasn’t seen your comment yet.

It’s not always bad. A silence can say as much as any sentence.

Unfortunately, most people don’t quite see it that way, and so we have advanced to a new, third level of communication: deliberately ignoring messages so that they can’t run back with their traitorous “Seen” flag. I’ve done it. You’ve done it, too. You peek at who’s texting you, and then you quickly dismiss the app so you can deal with it later.

Perhaps this is our way of taking back some semblance of privacy from the devices that monitor our behavior so closely. Perhaps this is merely an extension of a revulsion for awkward silences.

Just remember before you click: Communication involves a lot more than mere words.