Let’s be real. As soon as you send a text message, your recipient has probably read it. So why does everyone care so much about whether an app tells them that you’ve read their messsage?
You’ve seen it before. You send a message, and you get a notification saying it’s been read, but it’s hours before they actually reply:
3:45 Harry Guinness has read your message.
8:13 New Message from Harry Guinness.
How could they be so rude as to read your message and not reply right away? The nerve of people these days, right?
These notifications are called read receipts, and for some reason, everyone wants to block them from showing up. That way, no one can get mad when they see you read their message, but didn’t respond. But this fear and anger are misplaced. Let’s talk about why.
Although text messaging is a hell of a lot quicker, it’s basically the same as writing a letter. I send you a note on my own time, you respond on your own time. In other words, it’s asynchronous. We don’t both need to be on our phones at the same time for it to work. It’s totally possible to respond to a text message days or weeks after it was sent and the conversation to flow perfectly. Phone calls, on the other hand, are synchronous. I call you, you pick up, we chat. It’s pretty hard to talk on the phone if it isn’t happening in real time; even a second or two delay due to bad signal makes the whole thing unusable. Part of the problem is, some people try to treat text messaging as if it’s synchronous (or at least, nearly so). It isn’t.
NOTE: I’m going to use “text messaging” for this article but you can sub in the words iMessage, WhatsApp message, Facebook message, Snap, or the name of any of a dozen other chat services that work in pretty much the same way. The point I’m making applies to them all.
Read Receipt or Not, They’ve Probably Read Your Message
Digital delivery is awesome and handles billions of messages a day. It doesn’t mess up very often. If you send someone a text message, it’s safe to assume they got it.
And if the message is on their phone, they know about it.
Most people, myself included, look at their phones all the time. The odds of someone not knowing they’ve got a message from you within a few minutes, or at most an hour, are pretty much zero. Whether they actually open the message or not, it’s safe to assume it’s been seen. The notification preview you get on iOS and Android is more than enough to get the gist of a message without you seeing that “Seen at 10:24” read receipt even if they do have them turned on.
Unless someone is hiking in the backcountry, there is no way that it took three days for the message to come through. It’s best to just assume that within an hour or two, all your messages are read, regardless of whether you see a read receipt or not. Sometimes, people are just too busy to reply. They know you’ve sent a message, but they’re not going to deal with it now. They don’t have to; you’ve sent them an asynchronous message.
That Read Receipt Means They Aren’t Ignoring You
If someone reads your message, it means that they actually give a damn about what you said. If they didn’t, they’d just ignore it flat out until they were free and you wouldn’t get a read receipt. By reading your message and sending you that read receipt, they’re saying, “You mean enough to me that I’m actually going to check that your message doesn’t need a quick reply.”
Look at it from my perspective: to read a message, I might only be giving up ten seconds, but if I’m 720 words into an article and it is flowing nicely, I’m actually giving up quite a bit of attention and mental energy to actually tap that notification and open the Messages app. Your asynchronous message is being dealt with far quicker than it has any right to be.
Responding to a message takes even more effort than reading one. For anything short of a family bereavement or emergency mountain rescue, you’re not going to get a reply until I’m done doing what I’m doing. In fact, I’ve received three messages since I started writing this piece—I scanned them all but none of them need to be replied to right now. Finishing my work is far more important that making plans for this evening.
If someone’s read your message but not responded, it probably means the same thing.
Maybe Your Message Didn’t Warrant a Response
…or else it means what you said just didn’t require acknowledgement. Not all messages do.
Let’s look at a few examples.
- You send me a message asking if I’d like anything from the shops. I don’t and I’m kind of busy. Do you need a response? Nope.
- You send your roommate a message saying the house keys are under the bin. They’ve got it; do they really need to respond? Again, nope.
- You get a message that is really obviously a group text that isn’t that relevant to you? Respond to it? Not a hope.
- You send them a meme. They look at it, laugh, but are too busy to reply at the time. Is it so bad that it slipped their mind?
There are dozens of situations like this where a response really just isn’t needed, or is easy to forget to send. Any time a message is time sensitive (and the recipient missed the time window), a statement of fact, or just unimportant, it probably doesn’t need a reply. It doesn’t mean they’re deliberately ignoring you; it just means they didn’t feel the need to type, “No thanks”, or “LOL”, or even worse, just send a Thumbs Up emoji.
If You Want to Talk Now, Pick Up the Phone
There’s a really simple solution to all this read receipt drama: don’t use text messages for important information that needs a quick response. That way, you won’t be staring at your phone waiting for a reply and the other person won’t feel terrible when they read your message an hour later because they’ve seemingly ignored you.
When you know your text messages aren’t that important, or at least not urgent, it’s a lot easier to stop worrying that your friends are reading your messages but not responding.
If you really want an instant response, use a synchronous way to communicate. Consider using your smartphone as a phone. There’s an app for it.