In support/happiness, we speak often of response times. The gist is how long it takes to reply to someone. There are variations of course: Time to First Response, Time to Resolution, etc. In the same breath, we talk about quality and how important it is to provide a quality reply not just a quick one.

Right now, I’m trying to clear out my email inbox and my text messages. I have become a shitty real life message responder as responding to people becomes more of my day to day. I describe it to friends as “Let’s pen pal, alright?”.

I have a romanticized notion of pen paling for starters. It’s why I write so many postcards despite hardly ever receiving any in return. I’m in love with the concept: someone gets a physical message delivered to them at a time when they aren’t expecting a message. They aren’t sitting by their mailbox or carrying it around wherever they go (How weird would that be? Also that would make being a mail person so hard.) This is what we do with our phones though which helps create this false expectation. With that said, no one ever puts expectations on a friend writing a letter:

Dear friend,

How are you? Please respond in 5-7 business days.

Thanks! –

Anne

Yet we seem to have this notion of response time in today’s instant world where everything happens now. Douglas Rushkoff first opened me up to this idea in his book Present Shock. He described that we have it all wrong when it comes to email. We self impose timeframes on ourselves forcing ourselves to be slaves to the onslaught of notifications. We let it steal our time and force ourselves to waste energy making decisions about whether to respond now, later, never, etc. We strive for inbox zero. It’s ironic because that’s what I’m doing right now but I’m doing it on my own time. I’m massively late in responding to some people (I’m responding a month late to one email right now). I guess that’s why I love pen pal time – that would be okay. There are no expectations. Right now, I’m fighting against guilt and angst.

I used to be such a slave to my phone in high school that I had a friend remark how thankful he was to have 3 hours of uninterrupted time with me. I was startled: “What do you mean?” I thought I was giving with my time to others in my life. He explained that usually I’m managing a barrage of text messages from others in between our conversation. I wasn’t even aware I was doing this so much in high school. Part of this was due to me being someone who was a bit on call for All The Crises happening in people’s lives and part of it was me not being self aware enough. That comment really woke me up to how wrong I had it. I was trying to be there for everyone yet ended up likely not being fully there for anyone. These days, I make a big point not to be tied to my phone: my phone is permanently on do not disturb (sorry, mom, this means I miss calls from you). I semi-jokingly do have a list of SOS folks who, if they call or text, the notification will go through only because I’m worried about them for one reason or another.

I’ve started to try to spread this pen pal philosophy to more people. It’s uncomfortable though – people don’t like waiting a couple of days for a text message response or a month for an email response. I am realizing sometimes people would rather get a shitty response back from me than a real response back. It’s indicative of our culture these days. Yes – of course there are certain things that are urgent and that need a response NOW. Most of life is not that though, we just like to pretend it is… so we send 10 text messages in a row to the same friend at 1AM waiting impatiently for a response. All of this is unspoken of course.

I’m guilty of these false, unspoken expectations too. I’ve had friends who I know adore me and who I adore all the same not respond to text messages for months. Turns out some of my friends would rather talk on the phone when I avoid it at all costs. I texted a friend once only to have her IMMEDIATELY call me. I wanted to talk to her but rejected the call. Explain that one 🙂 I can’t.

This both makes me laugh yet nod solemnly:

“The phones are smarter but we are dumber.” ― Douglas Rushkoff

I can’t offer you fast friend response times anymore. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear from you or I don’t want to connect with you. It means I only want to do so when I can give you a response worthy of our friendship. I need time to recover. I need time to disconnect from technology as I spend most of my day plugged into the matrix. I will reply though – it might not be on the timeframe you want but it will be a real response. I will write it out patiently without distractions likely sitting in a coffee shop like I am now.

I hope you appreciate novels. I have lots to send.

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