The Conversation

  • Written by David Cowan, Lecturer, The University of Queensland
how does that make you feel?

Your phone chimes, it’s a message from your partner. You reply instantly because that’s what you always do.

Then you decide to add another message: “By the way, I love you ☺”

You see the “read” status appear under the message, and you wait for her reply. An hour later you are still waiting, still checking.

Has this ever happened to you?

For most of us, there is an unwritten social contract that underlies our online messaging interactions. The clearest part of that contract is that certain types of messages demand a timely response.

In our world of instant communications, it seems we have come to expect that the general immediacy and access to information afforded to us by our technology, should be reflected in our online social communication, just as it would be when face-to-face.

But norms that exist in the real world don’t necessarily transfer easily to the digital realm. Is it time we developed a new social contract for online communications?

Read more: Three things we can all learn from people who don't use smartphones or social media

Stoking the fires of social anxiety

When the social contract is broken or even bent a little, it can introduce a hierarchy of discomfort into the communication process, often including anxiety and introspective rumination over the reasons for the non-reply.

These types of emotions may be felt much more powerfully when we believe the person on the other end has actually read our message but has chosen to ignore us.

In these cases, our discomfort may rise with the passing of time. The rising anxiety may escalate to the point where we bombard the non-replier with yet more messages to try to elicit a response.

Of course, responses such as these can vary from person to person, and culture to culture. It has been suggested some people who are highly emotionally reactive and use text messaging excessively may actually feel rejected, isolated and suffer deep anxiety when replies to their messages are not immediate.

Read receipts makes things worse

It’s worth considering that the technology platform we use to conduct our messaging activities, may contribute to our expectations of an immediate reply.

Virtually every online messaging platform has a way of informing us when our message has been delivered to, and read by, the recipient.

WhatsApp has two blue ticks, one for successful delivery and one for when the message has been read. Facebook messenger shows the recipient’s profile picture beside the message, and so on.

If we know the person well, we may even know they have message receipt notifications set to appear on their device. These notifications do not specifically trigger the read-receipt for our message, but we know it’s likely the recipient has at least seen our message.

Combine all this with the ability to see when someone was last active online, and you have the perfect reply-status nightmare, if you are someone who cares.

Read more: Social media can be bad for youth mental health, but there are ways it can help

The fear of being ghosted

It’s easy to understand how read-receipt anxiety has evolved. Just imagine the offline equivalent – you say something to someone, you know they have heard you, but they deliberately ignore you.

When face to face, we would almost always make further enquiries to get our response and we’d be confused, or angry if it was not forthcoming.

It’s really not very surprising, given the very high volume of online messaging we now engage in, that people expect the same communication etiquette when using messaging platforms.

When non-reply behaviour is taken to an extreme, it may be analogous to a phenomenon known as ghosting. Ghosting involves indulging in behaviours such as not returning text messages, emails, phone calls or any related electronic communications.

It can occur within any type of close relationship but is more often associated with intimate ones. People often use ghosting as way of breaking off a relationship without any apparent justification.

Most of us would agree that a non-reply to an online message of love to an intimate other elicits a very strong emotional response, one that has very little to do with the length of the relationship in question.

Read more: Sharing your #shopping on social media can damage your health and your wallet

Evolving norms for new technologies

In any intimate relationship, a non-reply may make us feel humiliated, rejected isolated and embarrassed. Over time our anxiety will increase until we hear that return chime – hopefully they love us too, along with an apology for the delay, and all emotions can return quickly to normal levels.

Some people may actually use non-reply behaviour to manage their relationship dynamics, and torture their friends and loved ones. Of course no one reading this would ever have engaged in such Machiavellian behaviour!

Perhaps we need a new type of online communication social contract, and let’s set these expectations at the beginning of a relationship, or any friendship.

For example, on Tinder, profiles should perhaps have a box to tick to specify whether immediate replies are optional. Thanks to read-receipts and their associated emotional impact, relationship communication really has never been more complex and perplexing.

Authors: David Cowan, Lecturer, The University of Queensland

Read more


Scott Morrison at Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce

QUESTION: I suppose one question I'll ask is about the role of social media, YouTube, Facebook. And the sort of thought process that we’re having as a nation of how we can create that sort of societ...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Delivering the rail links Western Sydney needs

The Morrison and Berejiklian Governments will ensure the Western Sydney International (Nancy Bird Walton) Airport has a metro rail line in time for its opening.   The Prime Minister said his Gover...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Nancy-Bird Walton immortalised at Western Sydney Airport

Australia’s biggest aviation project will honour one of the nation’s trailblazing stars of the sky.   The $5.3 billion Western Sydney Airport will officially become Western Sydney International (N...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Psychologist’s 8 tactics to build resilience in the workplace

A clinical psychologist from Wesley Hospital has identified low resilience as a major factor impacting the mental and physical wellbeing of employees. He is calling for more awareness around the nee...

Sophie Harrison - avatar Sophie Harrison

Intense Growth As Car Next Door Launch Capital Raise

Releasing internal revenue figures for the first time, Car Next Door has achieved marketplace revenue of $10m last year and is on track to almost double that again in 2019 as it marks the start of a...

Car Next Door - avatar Car Next Door

How two 30-year old’s made 4 million in 2 years with coffee

Try ordering a “coffee” and chances are you’ll be met with a bored eyeroll and the expectation to specify “how” you’d like your coffee. Will it be, cold-drip, filter, nitro, hell let’s go old school...

Sophia Day - avatar Sophia Day


The Gold Coast is famous for fun but it is also famous for horrible traffic issues

The Gold Coast is a great place for a holiday but there are problems that tourists need to be aware of. The Gold Coast airport is a busy place. Thousands of visitors arrive every day from around the ...

Holiday Centre - avatar Holiday Centre

Older generation Australians are embracing solo travel

Allianz predicts a rise in solo travel in 2019, revealing those most likely to ‘go -it-alone’ among the 50+ age group   The popular ‘solo travel’ trend is predicted to continue in 2019 with mor...

Media Release - avatar Media Release

Fun Things You Must Do In Perth

Perth: Sun, sand and 19 beaches might seem to sum up the city, but not quite. The sunniest capital city in Australia offers so much more for you to do. Regardless of what your idea of fun is, you wi...

News Company - avatar News Company