Texting into the void
August 5, 2017 9:36 AM   Subscribe

Why do people text, and then let vast expanses of time go by before they reply?

Yes, I know there are exceptions. But most of time, I believe that a text exchange is a conversation. If someone starts one with me, it's the same thing as them walking up to me and speaking the words. In that scenario, I would reply, and they reply, and it goes from there. We would engage each other in real time.

This is my expectation for texting also. But there are people in my life who have the infuriating habit of letting so much time elapse between texts that it's ridiculous. Many of them are most often the person who sends the first text, which further increases my perception that there was a reason for the initiation of the text conversation. But then after my reply, crickets. And then randomly, later (often hours later), the next text arrives.

I know there are all the usual disclaimers about what someone might be doing, or why an immediate reply is not possible. And I am fine with instances when I initate the texting, since I may not be doing so at a convenient time, and I bow to their availability. I am talking about when someone takes the time to start the exchange (with no pre-set awareness of anything impacting their ability to respond, i.e. "I'm driving" or "I just stepped into a meeting"), but then abandons it practically as soon as it's begun?

What is the mindset of the person for whom this is is typical behavior? Why even text at all?
posted by I_Love_Bananas to Technology (39 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I believe that a text exchange is a conversation.

I suggest you reassess this belief in the light of the available evidence.
posted by pharm at 9:42 AM on August 5, 2017 [122 favorites]

Response by poster: Adding that there is no age factor; the slow texters are all over the map in terms of age.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:42 AM on August 5, 2017

Because their life doesn't revolve around their phone, they know you'll see the text and respond when it's convenient for you, and they'll do the same. Maybe they don't feel that it's necessary to have a text conversation in real time. Unless these text messages require a response and a plan from both of you (e.g. "Want to meet up for lunch today?"), then this isn't even rude. If you want to have a conversation in real time, make a telephone call.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:45 AM on August 5, 2017 [43 favorites]

I sometimes do this. My mindset at the time is treating the text more like an email than like a sentence in a phone conversation.
For instance, I might send a text off right at the moment I think of it, like an email or a vm, without any expectation that the recipient will answer immediately. Because I know often they can't get to their phone to reply right then either.
I never take it personally if someone puts their phone aside to deal with a human who's come into their frame and don't expect anyone else to when this happens to me, either.
posted by flourpot at 9:45 AM on August 5, 2017 [8 favorites]

What is the mindset of the person for whom this is is typical behavior? Why even text at all?

I see texting as kind of like a form of quick/casual email. Some emails require an immediate response, others are things that can be dealt with in a few days. Texts are the same -- sometimes it is urgent, other times it is just someone being chatty and in that case (to stretch and abuse your analogy) it's like they walked up to start a conversation but I was busy in another room, so they left a voice mail instead.

And by letting some time go by before replying, it prevents it from turning into a conversation -- a bunch of back and forth texts. Sometimes that is a great thing, other times I am ok giving the one reply but I'm not interested in chatting, and delaying solves that problem nicely.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:46 AM on August 5, 2017 [9 favorites]

You text me > I read it immediately, thus clearing whatever notification I originally saw, but I'm busy or distracted right that second and decide to reply later > lack of visible notification/reminder makes me forget you texted me until I go back into the texting app at the conversation list level and remember I haven't texted you back, which could be anywhere from several hours to several days depending on how busy and distracted I am.
posted by terretu at 9:47 AM on August 5, 2017 [21 favorites]

I'm guilty of this behavior and the reason is mostly that I have young kids. I'll often initiate an interaction but then my baby wakes up or my son who was playing so nicely suddenly needs my help with his Legos. To a lesser extent, other relationships play a role in this; I'm texting my friend about Game of Throbes, as we do every Monday, and my husband initiates a conversation that I need to focus on, or I get a call. I usually think I'll re-engage in the conversations soon enough so while I might efxplain ("cooking dinner so I'll disappear for awhile!") I usually don't. I think part of the reason is is that my text conversations tend to casual and chatty (see Game of Thrones). If I'm trying to schedule something or coordinate plans I'll be more deliberate about responding.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 9:48 AM on August 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

I believe that a text exchange is a conversation.

It's asynchronous communication, Bananas. The rules of etiquette aren't universally set, despite what you believe. If they wanted to have a conversation, they'd make the call.
posted by Rash at 9:51 AM on August 5, 2017 [49 favorites]

Most text conversations I have are because we don't need it to be like a real life conversation. If we are making plans or something time sensitive I'll follow through with the texts until we are finished. Otherwise basically everything in real life takes priority over continuing to text.
posted by Swisstine at 9:52 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I do this. If I want a conversation, I will call the person.
With texts, they're like mini-emails. I send texts while I think of things, so if I'm just about to leave the house for errands and remember you mentioned you wanted to go see The Dark Tower, I'll text you to see if you want to go to the movies on Thursday. You might reply right away, but now I'm out running errands - and age disclaimer here, I'm 50-ish and really hate talking on the phone and texting when I'm doing something else like errands - so I'll reply to you when I get home and that may be hours later. Unless it's urgent, of course.
posted by NoraCharles at 9:52 AM on August 5, 2017

Yeah, it's asynchronous conversation. Sometimes I'll forget that not everyone sees it that way and fire off a text late at night, not even expecting it to be seen, much less responded to, til the next day, and accidentally freak someone out. No, it's not a crisis, I just happened to have a thought I wanted to share with you.
posted by praemunire at 9:54 AM on August 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

This is the whole point of texting, in my view. It allows you the freedom to have a conversation while also attending to life's other exigencies--the puppy who needs to pee, the table that finally becomes available at the restaurant, the knock at the door, the crying child.
posted by HotToddy at 9:54 AM on August 5, 2017 [22 favorites]

For what it's worth, I think when texting was newer and in its infancy, people did have immediate conversations more often than random messages with long time spans in between (at least in my experience). So I used to have a similar belief to you, Bananas! But I think it has evolved over time to be a less-immediate form of communication (the reasons why would be fun to speculate), so I have tried to adapt my expectations/behavior with the trend.
posted by carlypennylane at 9:56 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

You text me > I read it immediately, thus clearing whatever notification I originally saw, but I'm busy or distracted right that second and decide to reply later > lack of visible notification/reminder makes me forget you texted me until I go back into the texting app at the conversation list level and remember I haven't texted you back, which could be anywhere from several hours to several days depending on how busy and distracted I am.

This is me. Also a lot of times I don't feel like having a conversation, so if the text isn't a question that doesn't need an semi-immediate response I will wait until I am ok with a conversation.
posted by littlesq at 9:56 AM on August 5, 2017

You are the one with unreasonable expectations here. People use texting just like any other form of asynchronous communication - the whole purpose is so you can send and read message when you have time. Surely you can understand sending someone a quick note, and then getting pulled into a meeting / particularly juicy news article / the newest Game of Thrones episode for some time? Situations requiring the immediate back-and-forth that you expect are best conducted in person, over the phone, or via videoconference.

What is the mindset of the person for whom this is is typical behavior? Why even text at all?

Mindset = Using texting as it was intended, as a convenient form of asynchronous communication.
Why bother? Because this is literally the entire point of texting.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:59 AM on August 5, 2017 [22 favorites]

If I reply immediately, it means it's becoming a real-time conversation I have to pay attention to. Sometimes I'll sign up for that. Sometimes (there are other IRL things demanding my attention), I won't. And then because I've read the text, I forget about it until I'm reviewing texts later on when I'm bored, which could be hours or sometimes days. So yeah, the default expectation needs to be that it's asynchronous, with a real-time convo being icing on the cake (and better solved by a phone call if it's really time critical).
posted by olinerd at 10:05 AM on August 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have no expectation that the person on the other end of the phone is going to respond right away. I send a text and get on with work or laundry or whatever and check my phone when I have a break. I try not to read texts until I know I have time to respond, so they'll keep the unread notification and I'll remember to text back.

If I felt that every text exchange obligated me to remain engaged in the conversation until it was resolved, I wouldn't do much of it. Texting allows me to maintain relationships through casual conversations that can go on for days.
posted by bunderful at 10:07 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

oof your expectations seem way off-base. The only time a text requires an immediate response is if it's "I'm at the grocery store right now, do you need anything" or, like, "my house just caught on fire can I spend the night at your place." (Also with people I don't know as well, I will deliberately wait a little bit to respond just so they don't develop the expectation that I am an immediate text responder. So.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 10:15 AM on August 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

Lots of reasons. Most people I text it's basically like shortform email to me. For some people like my boyfriend, I do see it as a typey phone call. However, we had to outline our expectations about this with each other to make sure we were on the same page. He would text me a question about, say, plans coming up later in the day and then wander off. Since I wasn't sure we'd be wrapping this up before the plans happened I would get frustrated. However his behavior is basically normative and my expectations weren't, really. So we've developed some norms of our own and this all works. We sign off with xx/xo when we are done syncrhonously chatting. Works for us.

I have people who text me too early, too late, or just at times when it's not great for me to have a conversation. The whole reason I text and don't answer the phone is because I want to have discussions on my timeline and not others'. I also am frequently in places where there is crappy cell service where a reply text may take, literally, a few minutes and my battery is low. Tons of other reasons. If you're frustrated by this behavior with a particular friend, you can work out something that works better for them and for you. If it's just randos and norms of behavior, it seems like your expectations are a little outside the mainstream. Which doesn't mean you can't advocate for what you prefer! But it does mean you may not get it.
posted by jessamyn at 10:16 AM on August 5, 2017

I think the order of speed in a conversation goes: 1. Face-to-face, 2. Talking while driving, 3. Phone call, 4. Instant message app during working hours, 5. Phone texts, 6. Facebook message (depends), 7. Email, 8. Snail mail, 9. Message in a bottle, 10. Gold-plated album sent into space.
posted by amanda at 10:24 AM on August 5, 2017 [29 favorites]

But most of time, I believe that a text exchange is a conversation. If someone starts one with me, it's the same thing as them walking up to me and speaking the words. In that scenario, I would reply, and they reply, and it goes from there. We would engage each other in real time.

This is not at all how I see text... chiming in to say that for me it's asynchronous communication.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:26 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

A phone call is a synchronous conversation. An in-person discussion is a synchronous conversation. A video conference is a synchronous conversation.

Everything else... isn't.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:28 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with everyone else here that your perspective on texting etiquette doesn't sync up with that of most texters. In some circumstances I text with the hope of an immediate response ("I'm here, where are you?" or "want anything from the store?") but for casual conversation, it's asynchronous and I prefer it that way. A lot of times I text someone with one small anecdote/photo I think they'd enjoy, and I don't expect it to become a full-blown conversation. Sometimes I do have basically synchronous conversations via text, but it's no big deal if someone drops out.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:35 AM on August 5, 2017

Put me in with the asynchronous crowd. My friends are pretty much entirely in this camp, as well. I do have one outlier, who, if I text her, she IMMEDIATELY calls me about 75% of the time. This leads to me not texting her when I think about her unless I'm ready to talk on the phone. Which I almost never am. If I were, I would have called her in the first place.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:41 AM on August 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

My conversations are quite flexible! We can either respond right away or we respond quite later. But I always make an effort to catch up in person or over the phone. Texting is just a fun way to touch base and let people know you care for them between those times. I only hold extended conversations with folks if we have an explicit communication agreement and know eachothers rhythms while we text, and that's for my most closest friendships. Communication and check ins are everything.
posted by yueliang at 10:48 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Texting provides welcome distance for those of us who do not always want the immediacy and (often) pressure that comes with a verbal exchange. The long pauses are not generally seen as rude when done in text, which is convenient for people who need time to group/organize their thoughts.

As an introvert, I dislike verbal conversations, or even using my voice much, because I grew up as the (by many years) youngest in a family of interrupters and opinionated people, and also I grew up being required to speak in a second language. This meant that my thinking was slowed down not only because I do not verbalize easily to begin with, but also because of looking for the right phraseology in the second language. By the time I knew what I wanted to say, I had either been interrupted or the conversation had moved on in an entirely different direction. So I never really learned to use my physical voice in a strong and assertive way.

To try and feel secure while speaking, I learned to push my voice down into my chest, while also mumbling, which meant people basically never heard what I had to say. I didn't realize they didn't until I took an acting class. Turns out I have a fairly lightly pitched voice, which people do hear clearly, but though I try I have trouble using because it makes me feel vulnerable.

All of this is why I prefer texting, writing and emailing to speaking. I can, and do use the phone, but it's uncomfortable.
posted by Crystal Fox at 10:56 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I text because I only have a second. If I had time for a conversation, I might just call.
posted by salvia at 11:35 AM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Don't read into it too much because your attitude makes sense but it's outside the norm. I find text ettiquette baffling as well, but I think that's normal for a relatively new technology. Not everyone has a querty keyboard, still, and not everyone was socialized in the days of instant messaging, which you probably were. A huge number of people will respond every couple of hours to their conversation style texts and a good number will respond the next day. The only person who tends to respond to me immediately is my SO for example. If you're new to this form of communication it can be confusing but it's much more like email than AIM or MSN messenger or whatever there was back in the day.
posted by benadryl at 12:14 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I try to keep a text conversation going smoothly if my friends and I are actively texting one another and in that case will tell the other party if I have to stop responding right away for whatever reason. And even that is mostly because I'm anxious, I never judge my friends for dropping off unexpectedly because life gets in the way and they'll pick the phone back up eventually.

But no. Texting isn't like a conversation and that's the beauty of it, for me. I can chat with my friends without being glued to my device and we can catch up with each other when we have the time.
posted by lydhre at 12:33 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hey! I saw a deer in the yard! Here's a picture! Should we text back and forth about it for half an hour or can I get back to walking the dog?
posted by irisclara at 1:02 PM on August 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

A verbal conversation skews off track from minor interruptions. "Eff! What were we talking about? I completely lost my train of thought." Talking is vulnerable to the foibles of human attention and memory. But a text conversation is a complete and precise record. Speakers are free to pick up and leave the flow at any time. It circumvents our inborn limitations. It's like that old friend you have, the one you haven't seen in six years — yet somehow you click and vibe like no time has passed at all!

Your idea of texting is dreary with obligation and expectation. That's not how I text!

*funny GIF*
"Our house is on fire."
"OMG [latest Trump thing]"
"Can you pick up tacos tonight?"
*cool article*
"Wanna go to a show next week?"
"I'm having the worst day."
*snarky observation about life*

Let's play mix and match! One of these needs an immediate reply. Two are time-sensitive but can wait. One can be attended to, handled in person or ignored. Four are enjoyable at any time, though a reply-in-kind attenuates in value the longer you wait. Seven are overtures of bonding.
posted by fritillary at 1:03 PM on August 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

In addition to nthing all the comments that texting really is asynchronous, I'll add that communicating via text is kind of cumbersome and a pain in the ass (to me, at least). I'm not the swiftest with Swype, and I have to look at the screen so I can't really be doing anything else while I'm texting. This makes me very much NOT want to have protracted conversations via my dumb little phone screen.

I do have a number of friends I don't see in person often, and I'm crap at phone calls/email, so shooting off the occasional text is a good way to let them know I'm thinking about them and just [came across a thing they would like / wanted to kvetch / saw a cute dog and need them to know]. It's great when they respond and if it turns into a couple minutes of back-and-forth that's fine, but it isn't something I or they expect. So in answer to your question of what my goal is when I send a text, basically I'm just trying to keep the wheels of my friendships greased.
posted by DingoMutt at 1:17 PM on August 5, 2017

Best answer: This happened to me the other day - I was waiting in line at a deli for my sandwich, and looking at my phone. I saw a friend had texted me, so I responded. She happened to be online so she responded. We had a few exchanges and then they called my number, I got my sandwich, glanced at my phone and she hadn't said anything else. So I put my phone away and an hour later when I checked I had 2 or 3 missed messages from her. I responded then. That's not unusual for us.

If I wait until we both have truly uninterrupted time to chat, it'll be a long time before we are able to talk.

Other things that interrupt/delay text responses:
My mom calls
The timer goes off and I remember there's something in the oven and forget that I was texting
My boss walks up to my desk to ask me about something
I walk into another room to see if my glasses are there and forget that I was texting
The doctor finally comes in (when texting in the exam room)
I realize I've almost missed a meeting
The fire alarm goes off
My date finally shows up (when texting while waiting for a date)
The laundry timer goes off

Back in the days when people I knew used g-chat a lot, I used to sit at my computer waiting for people to get back to me. And eventually I found that I was happier if I didn't do that and just chatted as long as the conversation was flowing easily, and let it go when I wasn't hearing back.

However, if someone said "do you have a few minutes to chat," I'd understand that they wanted my full attention and would let them know when I could provide that.
posted by bunderful at 2:26 PM on August 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

If someone starts one with me, it's the same thing as them walking up to me and speaking the words.

This is not my mindset at all. If someone walks up to me and speaks, I answer, either by engaging in the conversation or by saying I don't have time to talk right now. If someone texts me, I answer it when it's convenient for me. If someone calls me, I answer only if I'm prepared to have a conversation with that person right now. Otherwise I let it go to voice mail.

You asked for my mindset, so here goes: The texts I will let sit a while are usually:

From my mentally ill brother in the middle of my work day
From my friends asking about long-range social plans in the middle of my work day
From my extended relatives just saying hi during the middle of my work day
From close friends just chatting during the middle of my work day
From my husband texting about political news in the middle of my work day

Are you noticing a trend?
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:43 PM on August 5, 2017

The whole point of texting is that it's asynchronous. You don't have to reply immediately like you would in a verbal conversation; the participants just contribute whenever they feel able. This, to me, is really part of the beauty of texting and one of the things that makes it so useful—I can send someone a text whenever I like, knowing that I'm not going to be interrupting something important because they are free to just let it bide until they have a chance to reply. I also prefer getting texts over calls for that same reason—I'm not being put on the spot to have an entire conversation, I'm just being asked to exchange nuggets of info as and when I find it convenient.

If I felt like I had to respond to every text immediately upon receiving it, I'd be tied to my phone all the time. I'm by no means the social butterfly, but even I probably get dozens of texts in an average day, and if I'm doing stuff that I care about more I just let them sit until I can be bothered to reply to them all in a batch.

This is how literally everyone I know treats text messages. They are low-priority, asynchronous, reply-whenever-you-feel-like it messages. If someone really needs to get ahold of me Right Now then they'll call me instead, and I'll either pick up or call back as soon as I possibly can. Texts, though? Non-emergency, low-stress, nice and easy.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:20 PM on August 5, 2017

Why I don't answer:

I actually don't have my phone with me. It's upstairs. It's downstairs. I'm in the shower.
I have the alert tone turned off because I'm in a meeting
I was in a meeting, got out, and forgot to turn off "do not disturb."
I have the phone on silent by accident.
I'm conducting a text conversation with someone else
I'm on the phone with someone
I don't want to talk right now because I'm revising a manuscript and I'm on a roll
I don't have an answer for you.

Also, like everybody else, I like texting because it's NOT a conversation. In fact, I prefer texting to phone calls and tell people to text me if they want to get in touch.

Some people I have hour-long text-fests with (my daughter, for instance) because we like playing with words, sharing ideas, forwarding links, or riffing off one another, but then in mid-conversation one or the other of us has to go do something else and we don't mind.
posted by Peach at 4:24 PM on August 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Texting is never my preferred model of communication. I initiate it in two situations:

1) I genuinely need a fast response or to communicate something immediately. ("I'm at the store, do you want anything" or "I'm running late, see you in half an hour")

2) It's a conversation where left to my own devices I'd use email, but I am aware that this specific friend likes to communicate by text, and I am trying to be a good friend and go along with what works best for them. In that case, I may open up a text conversation whenever I think of something, but I don't feel compelled to sit by my phone to carry on a full conversation just then. The conversation can happen at its own pace.
posted by Stacey at 3:10 AM on August 6, 2017

I refuse to be chained to my phone so I may send a text, get a response and not continue the convo because I got busy with something else. Then I may just forget about the texting esp as once I leave work my phone is usually in my purse. It's not unusual that my phone is dead in my bag on Monday morning. I have a house phone or even a PM on facebook if I'm not responding to a text. In my experience texting is rarely urgent, usually more chatty or occasionally a 'call me right away plz' if warranted.

Texting is not a conersation. It may have instances where it feels like one but it is not one. You will continue to be annoyed unless you learn to relax your expectations re texting.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 2:43 PM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think the problem is that this:

If someone starts one with me, it's the same thing as them walking up to me and speaking the words.

Is an unreasonable expectation and one you have to understand isn't shared by everyone. I, for one, don't share it one whit.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:05 PM on August 6, 2017

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