How long should you take to respond to a WhatsApp?

In the era of notifications that light up our screens with every message, is it acceptable to take an hour to reply? Expecting an immediate response isn’t a matter of impatience, but design

Fran Pulido
Karelia Vázquez

Not answering messages is a form of resistance: being ostensibly available, visibly online but without replying, being a sphinx in the era of hyper visibility. “We are becoming empathic machines, mechanically reacting to whatever happens with a smile and a LOL,” wrote Geert Lovink in his 2019 book Sad by Design. Today, refusing to respond is subversive.

There was a moment when responding in real-time was a superpower. Users of the first blackberries may remember it: they could be reached at any hour of the day or night. It was an expensive privilege. That was the early 2000s. Twenty years later, everyone carries a smartphone, and the superpower has become an agonizing obligation.

With the mass adoption of mobile devices, the window of reasonable wait time grows smaller and smaller. We aren’t willing to wait, and we apologize for minute delays. Is it acceptable to wait an hour to respond to a WhatsApp? After how many minutes do we have to explain our delay? How many hours must elapse before leaving someone on “read” becomes ghosting?

When we are asked something in a face-to-face conversation, we respond within 200 milliseconds, or 0.2 seconds. “We answer so quickly that we cannot perceive the pause between the question and answer,” explained University of Sydney linguistics professor N. J. Enfield in his 2017 book How We Talk. That’s what we expect when we send an instant message —even the name of the service creates an unrealistic expectation— or even an email.

If everyone expects an immediate response, it’s by design, not because of impatience, according to Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and author of several classic books about the man-machine relationship, among them The Second Self (1984) and Alone Together (2010). “Now written communication is designed to be an imitation of real conversation. It creates an environment that makes you expect your interlocutor to answer immediately, but that doesn’t always happen.” The other is always a mystery. We have on our phones an average of 1,602 unread emails and 47 unanswered WhatsApps, according to data from the consulting firm Kantar. We are anesthetized by notifications. Your message may have arrived at a bad moment. It’s nothing personal.

That’s the real context, not the one imagined by a user experience designer. Constant connectivity also creates the artificial pressure to respond. To avoid it, we have to exercise passive resistance. Experts speak of an “urgency bias” in messages. That sense of urgency almost never reflects reality.

Not answering is freeing, but it makes you look suspicious. The over-analysis of subtext is one of the vices of our age. And the subtext includes the minute and hours of silence, the length of the message (spoiler: the monosyllables and OK’s feel awful), the time we spend writing a response, the pauses —perhaps to reread, or maybe to edit and start over?— and, of course, the intention behind leaving a message on read.

Behind the philosophy of non-response, Turkle intuits the desire to dominate the conversation or mark distance or power by seeming inaccessible, interesting and less anxious than the average person. After all, most of us respond to almost everything immediately. Others simply feel drained by the demand of an immediate response and the avalanche of new emergencies.

The non-response is an act of free will. No one knows where their email or phone number may have ended up. No one can prevent being found or receiving allegedly urgent messages about which they have nothing to say. The only option left is to not respond. It is the last possible resort. And it is an eco-friendly act, too: one day, we will have to talk about digital pollution by excessive politeness.

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