Are Read Receipts Destroying Relationships?

“I love you.”

*seen 7:47 P.M.*

Communication has always been a tricky puzzle, and the read receipt hasn’t made it any easier to solve.

A read receipt is a special indicator in IM conversations of both the time and date that the receiver opened the sender’s message, such as “seen 7:47 P.M.” or “read at 5:45 P.M.” Now, people can tell exactly when they’re being acknowledged or ignored. To my understanding, you can find read receipts in Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and iMessage, although these and other applications may give you the option to disable them.

Read receipts almost always inconvenience at least one participating party because if you open the message, then you’re forced to respond to it immediately, and you become locked into a conversation that has no end in sight. Alternatively, if you wait to open the message, then the other person will think that you’re just ignoring them. And while you can opt to use the infamous, “Sorry, I didn’t have my phone on me” excuse, chances are it’s not going to work because honestly, who isn’t carrying their phone 24/7?

Call me “behind the times,” a bitter old man, or whatever, but I’m not a strong believer in text messaging being the primary conversational medium. If anything, it intrudes on the fluid and sloppy yet imperfectly beautiful nature of authentic human communication, and fosters an unhealthy dependence on our comfort zones. Its primary purpose should be to convey vital information, not spend hours exchanging meaningless, lazy, 3 word sentences that do little to progress relationships in the real world and ultimately reduce social competence.

I also don’t have the stamina or retention span (not ATTENTION span) to be effective at text messaging. Read receipts only expose just how ineffective that I can be at it. While texting, I might run into what are perceived breaks in the conversation with you, and thus I might forget to respond, fall asleep, or stop responding altogether. Yet how am I supposed to know what constitutes a break in the conversation when I am unable to evaluate your body language or tone of voice? If the read receipt shows that I’ve opened your latest message at “6:50 P.M.” and I haven’t responded to it ever since, then it might appear as though I’ve lost interest in talking to you, when in actuality I thought we both had nothing more to say. But it doesn’t always come across that way. For that reason, I’m starting to worry that the mere knowledge our most recent messages were opened is enough to further complicate our relationships by creating the false impression that, by virtue of one or two unacknowledged texts, we do not care about our friends and companions anymore.

Texting sure is nice and convenient, but it often creates stress when there should be none. Think, how many times have you agonized over that one unacknowledged message that was opened over three hours ago? How many times have you convinced yourself that your boyfriend or girlfriend has lost interest simply because they haven’t responded to you since last night?

It used to be that the best way to tell you were being ignored was when you called and left a voicemail for a friend, companion, or potential employer, and they never called you back. However, you had no way of knowing that the other person ever received your voicemail—you just had to take it at face value and assume they weren’t interested. Today, it’s more so that you know the other person isn’t interested (because the read receipt tells you exactly when your last message was opened), they just couldn’t make it any less painfully obvious.

The read receipt is another classic example of how technology, when abused, doesn’t enhance communication, but rather obscures it. I hope that someday, we can get into the habit of turning the phones off and opening up to each other the old fashion way.