What If We Just Stopped Being So Available?

At first, being reachable all the time felt good. To professionals who started using BlackBerries 20 years ago to conduct business on the go, it registered as a superpower. “They felt like masters of the universe,” Melissa Mazmanian, an informatics professor at UC Irvine who studied the devices’ uptake in the early 2000s, told me. But as more people got mobile devices, responding to messages anytime became the norm among co-workers as well as friends and loved ones. The superpower morphed into an obligation.

This is an evolution that Mazmanian refers to as the “spiral of expectations.” When communication technology makes a new thing (like responding on the go) possible, doing that thing can be a way for people to signal how dedicated they are as workers or family members—and, crucially, not doing that thing can suggest that they aren’t dedicated enough. Now, when people feel they haven’t responded sufficiently quickly, they think they owe their correspondent an apology.

This dynamic is not unique to the internet and instant communication. Nineteenth-century letter-writers were constantly apologizing for and explaining their delays when they felt that a socially unacceptable amount of time had passed, according to Jason Farman, a media scholar at the University of Maryland. As an example, he pointed me to a line in an 1863 letter from an Illinois man to his cousin: “I feel it my duty to write to you and I also feel that it is a duty which I have neglected quite long enough, yet I hope I will be forgiven when I explain the matter to you.”

But what’s changed in the past 10 to 20 years, with the mass adoption of email and smartphones, is that the “acceptable” window of response time has gotten much smaller. Someone could conceivably apologize for their delay when responding in the afternoon to an email sent that morning.

All of these sorries raise the question of whether any harm is actually done when someone commits the sin of unavailability. Granted, there can be real consequences to responding slowly in a culture that considers idleness, or even just the appearance of it, to be a moral shortcoming. This is especially true at work: Even if being responsive at all hours has no bearing on an employee’s actual productivity, many bosses lazily use it as a proxy for gauging workers’ value. And Matthew Heston, a social-media researcher, told me that in an experiment based on a situation “something like trying to coordinate via Slack with someone during work hours when you know they’re online,” people reported slightly less warm feelings toward slow responders.

Outside work, a delayed response can cause genuine problems too. If your partner texts you “I love you,” responding two days later is not a good idea. In personal communications, a lack of a speedy response risks signaling a lack of care. After all, your phone was right there.

But aside from these potential land mines, the consequences of not responding quickly may not be as serious as we fear. When Laura Giurge at the London School of Economics and Vanessa Bohns at Cornell University surveyed thousands of workers on their perceptions of email norms, they found that recipients of nonurgent after-hours emails tended to overestimate how quickly they needed to reply, and that senders tended to underestimate how stressful those messages were for recipients.

“Our expectations for how quickly others expect us to respond are [often] inaccurate,” Bohns told me. “We think we have to respond right away, but actually people are okay if we take our time.” And yet we go around apologizing to one another constantly for our delays.

The most common way for people to resolve the tension between the pressure of speediness and the reality of busyness is to start messages with four words: Sorry for my delay. It is an innocuous, polite gesture. I can’t stand it.

For one thing, having multiple obligations and priorities means that we are, all of us, in a perpetual state of delay on something, and apologizing for that fact feels like having to apologize for your standard mode of being. (Also, on principle, women are conditioned to apologize for too many things, and they do not need one more thing on that list.)

I get that people say formulaic things without meaning them for the sake of politeness, but even if “Sorry for my delay” is a social nicety, performing remorse can have real effects. Repeating it can make us feel like we’re perpetually behind, and worse, it models an unreasonable standard of responsiveness for the person we’re (allegedly) slow in writing back to.

Yet as much as I crave a replacement for this phrase, I haven’t found a good one. Recently, I asked several communication experts for help, and although they had some wise suggestions, the lack of a clear, elegant answer underlines how tricky this problem is.

One suggestion was to substitute in “Thank you for your patience.” This at least eliminates the apology, but it’s too passive-aggressive for my taste. It presumes and even imposes patience on the part of the recipient, whether they felt it or not. Alternatively, providing an explanation for the delay (“I was slammed with work yesterday”) rather than an apology can reassure people that they shouldn’t take your response time personally, but it also, unhelpfully, implies that slow responses are acceptable only if you have a valid excuse. Another idea: If a message will take you a while to respond to, you could first reply with a quick note saying when you plan to respond fully. This can reduce uncertainty and stress on the part of the sender, but the downside is that … well, you’d still have to respond relatively quickly to tell them you’ll respond more thoroughly later.

One of my favorite suggestions was to omit the apology and just write the email as you would if you were responding right away. “I think the other person cares more about the content, not the speed, of my response,” Giurge, the co-author of the email study, told me.

My other favorite move is based on Mazmanian’s observation that “Sorry for my delay” can be a way to signal that you care about your relationship with someone, so perhaps we’d be better served by a phrase that says so more directly, like “So nice to hear from you!” or “I always love getting messages from you” or, if you’re sending a long email, “I wanted to make sure I thought carefully about your good questions.”

If these all feel like imperfect solutions, that’s probably because the norms they’re targeting are broken. “Just changing the wording of our emails is not sufficient,” Elana Feldman, a management professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, told me. So perhaps what I crave, more than a graceful email response, is a more humane culture of work and communication. Technology, for instance, could be designed to that end. Apple’s latest mobile operating system is a start: When people turn on “Focus” mode, others can see in the Messages app that they aren’t receiving notifications. The law can help too. In France, a legal “right to disconnect” cuts down on after-hours work emails.

Ellie Harmon, a senior instructor at Portland State University, pointed out to me that technology isn’t in and of itself stressful—other people’s expectations are. She came to understand this while studying how hikers on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail engaged with their phones. When she was on the trail for her research project, despite there being more cell service than she expected, she said she experienced a “perfect disconnection,” where “the obligations to others just dropped away.”

In everyday life, Harmon noted, we may not be able to easily change others’ expectations of us and create a perfect disconnection for ourselves, but it is within our power to give others a degree of that feeling. We can stop taking slow replies personally. We can stop apologizing for our delays, in order to normalize non-speedy responses. We can tell people there’s no need to apologize for their delay, if they do. (Along these lines, Bohns and Giurge, in their study, came up with a simple intervention that lessened emailers’ stress about responding: Just say, “This is not an urgent matter, so you can get to it whenever you can.”)

In all the texts, emails, and Slack messages I’ve sent in my life, I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve apologized for my delay. But looking back, I can say that only once did I truly mean it: I was a full four months late in responding to a long and thoughtful email I had received from a reader. But here in this public forum, I would like to retract all of my other previous apologies. I am not sorry for my delay, and I don’t expect you to be either.

The Atlantic

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