There was a time when the main thing you had to worry about in casual social situations was the decision between a peck-on-the-cheek, a handshake, or a hug upon greeting.
Meanwhile, relationships have always been fraught with double meanings and crossed wires. Flowers – a spontaneous, fresh-scented display of thoughtfulness? Or a floral attempt to make amends, reeking of guilt?
Technology, though, has added many new levels, and the ensuing potential for confusion, to our social relationships, both with acquaintances and loved ones. Modern relations are a minefield: the mines are tears over internet search history, slanging matches about exes still friended on Facebook, or sniping at an unanswered text message.
It was thinking on this last one that had me wondering (paging Carrie Bradshaw): who the hell leaves read receipts on?
For the unfamiliar, a read receipt tells one the recipient of a text message has opened the message and has viewed it. Read receipts come in different forms across platforms and operating systems.
Apple’s read receipts for iOS, introduced in 2011, signal when a message is “read”, rather than just “delivered”, along with a timestamp. However, this function can be toggled off, as with the blue ticks on WhatsApp. But sadistic platforms, Facebook and Snapchat, do not allow the feature to be turned off. Snapchat even informs a person whether a screenshot of a snap has been taken.
There are workarounds. Facebook’s “seen by” on messages and chat, for instance, can be cheated using browser extensions. And the savvy know that glancing at a message on a lock screen or in a notifications centre is a good means of parsing a message without opening it.
Read receipts aren’t a new thing. Since the days of horseback, via the Royal Mail’s signed for service, and delivery status notifications (DNS) on email clients, we are all familiar with the concept of acknowledgment of deliverance.
The thought of having text message read receipts switched on, however, has me breathing into a paper bag. I can’t think of anything worse. This is because I am awful at returning text messages. Either because I am busy, or more usually, because I am lazy. Or I have nothing to say.
I don’t want to ruin all of this by not replying to a text message straight away, because in an ever-connected world, a delay in response is usually viewed as rudeness, a brush-off, or the expression of irritation. I don’t want to make people feel those things. This is a common reason many others switch read receipts off, according to an open call I put out on Twitter.
It’s not that I don’t think what you said isn’t funny. Or that I don’t want to go for a drink with you. Or that I have no opinion on Judd Apatow’s latest (although at times, all of the above). But it is that I’m half way through a New Yorker long read. Or, I’m crossing the road. Or I’d rather finish what I’m watching on Netflix.
I kind of assumed everybody was this aloof, although deep down I know that’s not the case, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been nicknamed “disappearing Hannah” in cities on different continents.
But in a world in which we are supposed to be connected all of the time – and Facebook obviously thinks we should be re: the non existence of an “off” option on its read receipts – I just like a bit of breathing space. I’ve made friends furious by tweeting before responding to their texts – but a tweet is a wholly different method of communication. One can send a tweet, and, unlike a text, it’s not opening a conversation with an inferred commitment of a dialogue for the next 5-10 minutes.
In fact, Twitter and Facebook and online messaging and networking in general tend to be more relaxed arenas when it comes to non-responses. This would make sense if we still lived in a desktop world, but when tweets hit our pockets along with SMS, it’s odd that there is a disparity.
What I found out when I asked others about their preferences surprised me. A lot of people do keep receipts on. Some didn’t know there was an option to switch them off. Most of the people who keep them on are in long-term relationships. “I want the wife/husband to know I’m at the supermarket”, or “I’m going to be home late”, or have “picked up the kids” etc. “I know to call if the message hasn’t been read”, is a frequent comment. These people find the read receipt genuinely useful.
Then there is a suggestion that truly busy and important people keep read receipts on. These people cannot afford to be concerned about offending people with a lack of response – keeping read receipts on is the best and most efficient means of informing a person he/she is too busy to respond. It’s not that these important people are trapped under a cat, popcorn water-falling onto their sternum, as is the case with me. They are genuinely busy.
Read receipts seem to be turned off most often by single people and those casually dating. And younger people. To these people, their read receipt to themselves is a grunt. People dating speak of the panic when a paramour who does have read receipts switched on doesn’t respond. One woman says she knew a guy she was dating wasn’t going to be worth longterm effort when he didn’t respond to her Facebook messages – despite him having seen them.
Some admit to purposely turning read receipts on as an indirect means of “ghosting” someone, ie. disappearing from their life. Allowing someone to see their messages are being viewed but not returned. In the past, this might have been a begging letter from an ex returned to them unopened. So, read receipts become another tool in the arsenal of dating mind games. Because there’s not enough of those already.
All I know is that I hate being contactable 24/7. I like to be able to choose not to answer something immediately, whether this is a reflection on the person contacting me or the content of the correspondence or not – and usually it isn’t. Perhaps those of us who prefer read receipts turned off are life’s dreamers, or rather, the free-spirits, or the scatty ones. The commitment-phobic, the independent. Whereas those with read receipts turned on are punctual, reliable and keep their email inboxes sorted.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments, and I’ll get back to you – promise.
This article was written by Hannah Jane Parkinson, for theguardian.com on Monday 17th August 2015 16.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010