Growing up, texting and near-constant connection didn’t exist. If I called someone who wasn’t home, the phone rang out. Or I left a message on their voicemail or with whoever they lived with. In other instances, I called and got a busy signal. And then I had to go about my life. Or try again a little while later.

Now, regardless of whether someone’s available or not, we can drop into their phone with a message.

Depending on where we check, we can see if they’re online, when they were last online and even what they were doing. And I think this has created the false impression that if we don’t receive an immediate or swift reply, then it means they’re ignoring us. Or, as my daughters say, we’re being ‘aired’.

Yes, I’ve reached that stage in parenthood where I sometimes don’t know what the frick they’re talking about and have to Google terms! Apparently, teenagers explain their lack of or slow reply by saying they were “airing” the person in question. This then creates anxiety about having done something wrong when, realistically, the person was having their dinner or not allowed to be on their phone!

The thing about deceiving ourselves into the expectation that a ‘swift reply equals special’ is that we feel distinctly unspecial and ignored when that person’s reply is slower than usual.

Associating how quickly someone returns our call or replies to our text with our self-worth or how much they value the relationship plays into this notion that a slower-than-expected reply occurs because we’ve done something wrong.

Text replies, in particular, are big sources of friction and tension in friendships and dating. As humans love to try to control the uncontrollable, we rely on rules and patterns. This means, for instance, that we might make it a personal rule to always reply to texts quickly so that we can then expect the other party to do the same. Which, incidentally, isn’t an authentic and healthy reason to reply to a text. It then becomes, “A good friend should reply within X minutes/hours, not days.”

When dating, we might make a mental note of the text pattern. Despite only having texted for what might be a relatively short (and intense) time, we start to feel trusting. If we then don’t receive the usual good-morning text or the usual number of emojis or sign-off, it sets off texting anxiety. Next thing, we’re spiralling out. We imagine all sorts of terrible things, even though we might barely know this person.

The truth is, a swift reply doesn’t equal special.

Given how stressful people find modern communication, sometimes a swift reply can mean anxious.

Sometimes it can mean bored, distracted or escaping.

And, yeah, sometimes it can mean that they happened to be on their phone at the time.

It doesn’t have to mean anything, though.

If we’re at the point of measuring reply frequencies and timings, we need to have an honest conversation with ourselves about what’s really going on. We’re trying to control something.

Most people don’t want to feel that if they reply swiftly, they’re contractually obliged to do so forever to avoid being called a Bad Friend or Neglectful Loved One.

Similarly, if a loved one takes longer than we’d prefer to reply, that doesn’t have to mean it’s a bad thing. We don’t have to start imagining all sorts of problems and injustices, not least because this says more about the lack of security in the relationship or potential underlying tensions than it does about the reply itself. When we tend to assume or worry that we’re being ignored, we need to acknowledge the baggage behind it. Recognising this old hurt will help us differentiate between the past and present so we can be kinder to ourselves with healthier boundaries.

If there is an issue, it’s far better to address it than get into a frustrating session of keeping score with text ping-pong. We know there’s genuine freedom and trust in a close relationship when a reply sometimes takes a while, and it isn’t a thing.

With new people, while the lack of reply or call may spell disappointment, it doesn’t mean anything about us as a person.

Now, of course, there are instances when people, both adults and children, are actually ignoring someone. But not hearing back from someone that day or them being caught up in their lives doesn’t mean they’re ignoring us.

Are you ready to stop silencing and hiding yourself in an attempt to ‘please’ or protect yourself from others? My book, The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon), is out now.

The Joy of Saying No by Natalie Lue book cover. Subtitle: A simple plan to stop people pleasing, reclaim boundaries, and say yes to the life you want.
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