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Reply none: Digital snubs inevitable but consequences can be severe, say experts

The Ottawa Citizen with Aimee Morrison 07 February 2019

Danielle James’ phone just won’t stop buzzing.

She’s fielding a barrage of emails for her work at a Toronto production company when — buzz — her friend sends her a picture of another vegan lunch on Snapchat. She’s coaching her brother through his college applications when — buzz — she gets a LinkedIn message from an old colleague looking to reconnect. She’s finally getting back to a weeks-old email from a relative when — buzz, buzz, buzz — her group chat with her high school classmates starts acting up with plans for drinks.

All day long, it’s like this: a steady thrum of notifications, each seeming to demand the 23-year-old’s immediate and undivided attention. With an influx of hundreds of emails, texts and social media messages per day, James said keeping up with her virtual correspondence could be a “full-time job.” So sometimes, she won’t reply — then the pang of guilt hits.

“When you’re always accessible … there’s no escaping keeping up the social pretext and just being on your own,” said James. “Your phone is always demanding that you be present enough to answer all these messages, and I think that’s a lot to ask of people living real lives.”

It’s a problem experts say many are facing in the age of ceaseless electronic communication — people are expected be digitally available on demand, and violating this cyber-etiquette can have severe consequences.

Julian Emilio, 28, said for a period, he was so overwhelmed by his inbox that he wouldn’t check his emails for weeks, and as unread messages from his supervisor piled up, he believes his reply anxiety cost him professional opportunities.

When she moved to Toronto for university, international student Navi Suresh thought social media would help her stay connected with friends back home. But instead, the 22-year-old feels those relationships have suffered because of her lagging response times, so she now limits her social circle to a few friends with lower digital demands.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the digital exchange, jilted interlocutors are filling the void of a non-response with their own social stresses.

Alex Gerdts of Woodstock, N.B., is frustrated by how frequently he’s left hanging in the middle of an online chat, stirring worries about whether he said something wrong or “nuttier” than expected.

“It’s rude, but people don’t see it as rude,” said Gerdts, 27. “We have lost the idea of manners with a conversation.”

Ottawa-based etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau agrees the obligation to respond has eroded over the years, particularly among millennials, whose “nonchalant” approach to replying can seem uncourteous to older generations.

With the rules of reply reciprocity still being established, she advises manners-minded Canadians to be explicit about their expectations concerning the timing and mode of responses.

Aimee Morrison, an associate English professor at the University of Waterloo who studies the digital humanities, said a one-size-fits-all social protocol may not be realistic due to the sheer volume and variety of electronic forms of communication, each platform with its own conventions.

This is further complicated by tools that allow senders to peer into the other side of their digital transmission — such as read receipts, last-active statuses and blinking dots to indicate someone is typing — which, combined with public displays of online engagement, can invite conflict over how and when a person chooses to respond, said Morrison.

“Your activities online are open to a kind of surveillance that makes you explain yourself to people in ways that we’ve never had to explain ourselves before,” she said.

Lwam Mehari, 30, is all too familiar with these virtual faux pas, and has developed strategies to prevent them. The Toronto resident tries to not open messages until she knows she can respond to them, so as to avoid leaving a friend “on read” — meaning the sender knows a message has been seen, but the recipient hasn’t replied.

“It kind of implies that you’re not a priority, and maybe they want to create some distance,” Mehari explains. “It’s definitely major shade.”

The trouble is that people’s minds tend to leap to the worst explanation for a non-response, said Mehari, when often, the real reasons are quite mundane. Maybe the recipient’s phone ran out of battery, or they could be preoccupied with other concerns in the physical realm.

As Morrison sees it, this is the true social cost of mutually assured reply burden: it distracts from the real-world connections we’re so invested in maintaining.

“You may feel like you need an answer right away, but that’s just because the device has trained you that it’s possible,” she said. “That pressure comes a little bit from the immediacy of the devices, and it doesn’t come from the people.”

For all her digital contact, James said her ever-buzzing phone hasn’t brought her closer to the people she cares about. If anything, it’s strained her in-person interactions, because by the time she sees her friends, there’s not that much to catch up on. Then, another buzz beckons.

“I think it’s really easy to get disconnected when you’re constantly connected,” said James. “It blurs the lines of time spent face-to-face with real people, and time spent being available digitally.”