Why are some of us so bad at replying to our WhatsApp and social media messages? And what does it say about us as people? Stylist’s Lauren Geall investigates.
As anyone who owns a mobile phone will know, the advent of texting split the world into two distinct groups: those who text back, and those who don’t.
I (regretfully) fall into the second of those two groups. I am a self-confessed ‘bad replier’ – if I could add an out-of-office to my phone which would tell all of my friends to expect a reply within five to seven working days, I would.
I know it’s a problem – every so often, I’ll go through periods where I hastily reply to everyone, throwing apologies for my rubbish-replying skills left, right and centre – but even when I resolve to make a change, it’s never long before I’m back to my old bad replying tricks.
It’s not even like it’s conscious behaviour, either. I’m not actively avoiding people, and I don’t secretly reply to some people while leaving others out to dry. Everyone from my mum to my oldest friends will tell you the same thing: no matter who you are, getting a reply from me within a socially acceptable time is like winning the jackpot.
I know what you’re thinking: “just… reply?” But no matter how many times I tell myself it’s time to make a change, I always find myself either a) opening a message and forgetting to reply, or b) seeing that notification pop up and telling myself I’ll ‘reply later’ when I have the time to think of a response. And without fail, I always end up back in the same place, hastily typing a “so sorry I’ve only just seen this” or “shit, saw this and forgot to reply” a week later in an attempt to not look like a completely horrible person.
I know I’m not the only one who berates themselves for being such a bad replier – Stylist’s digital editor-at-large Kayleigh Dray is also afflicted by this confusing struggle.
“I have the very best intentions when it comes to WhatsApp, truly I do,” she tells me. “I have a nasty habit, however, of reading messages, replying in my brain, and then never actually sending anything. Days later, I’ll receive a pointed ‘HELLO?!?! ARE YOU DEAD?’ follow-up message from the pal or relative in question (honestly, check my inbox, it’s 76% comprised of messages like this), prompting me to respond in a flurry of staccato-style sentences.
“To any friends and family reading this, please know that when I tell you that ‘I’m so sorry, I meant to reply to this ages ago,’ I 100% mean it from the bottom of my heart. Because I don’t like being this way. I hate picking up the days-old threads of an old conversation and trying to wrangle them back into something fresh and exciting. I hate the idea that someone, anyone would ever be sat waiting for a message from me and feeling weird about it (I’m socially anxious myself, and I’m honestly filled with dread whenever I have to prod someone to respond to anything). But, despite all of this, I just don’t seem to be able to shake the bad habit of a lifetime. I am bad at replying to messages, and that is my cross to bear. Sorry.”
Stylist’s former-SEO executive Lucy Robson echoes my feelings, too: “I have such a reputation for being a really rubbish replier – and it is one of (many) things I berate myself for constantly, because it just seems so impolite. When someone doesn’t respond to me (who I don’t count as a fellow bad replier), it cripples me with anxiety and convinces me that they hate me, or just don’t see me as someone important enough to reply to. So why do I do it to other people?
“It feels like such a masochistic tendency to put off doing something that actually can take seconds and brings me so much relief, because after all it is lovely to have caring family and friends to chat to. A lot of the time it’s because I don’t like those long catch up messages over WhatsApp and I feel intimidated and would much rather catch up in person, or I’m not sure whether I can do something, and rather than reply and say exactly that (which I accept from others as a completely, more than fine response), I leave it on unread.
“The irony is, if someone replies late to me and says they are a bad replier (AKA a kindred soul), that is totally fine by me, I completely get it, time just runs away with us all, yet when it’s me, six days after receiving the message, I feel on the back foot, and like I am in the bad books of the person I have left on unread, causing me to put replying off even more. It’s a vicious cycle.”
So why are we like this? In my case, a part of me does think it’s got something to do with my anxiety – the pressure of knowing what to say on the spot and feeling obliged to start a conversation without warning is strangely triggering to me. But on the other hand, part of me thinks my shit replying is part of who I am – that, as I said before, there are two types of people in this world, and no matter how hard you try, you are what you are.
To try and understand what’s going on here, I reached out to Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy. And according to her, my anxiety theory could be spot on.
“It could be busyness (feeling overwhelmed with messages) or underlying anxieties that lead someone to be a bad replier,” she explains.
“Sometimes it can also be about control – when we feel anxious and overwhelmed, we might try to take control of the situation i.e. ‘It’s up to me when I get back to someone’. It’s a way of avoiding a feeling of being coerced to engage with someone (or something) in moments we don’t wish to.”
Knowing that there’s a reason to my unsociable behaviour is a small relief, but what if I want to make a change and become the good replier I’ve always dreamed of being? According to Touroni, it’s all about taking responsibility for the kind of person I want to be.
“In order to overcome anything, we first need to be motivated enough to want that change,” she explains. “You need to acknowledge that you don’t like how you currently manage your interactions. Connect to your values, and whether you want to be someone who is responsive and reliable.”
She continues: “There are moments when it’s important to reply in a timely manner, and others when it can wait. Get better at making those judgements. Take responsibility and tackle your avoidance head-on, keeping your eye on your values, and the kind of person you want to be.”
Although I know that changing my behaviour is a possibility, I think it’s important to acknowledge that feeling anxious about managing all of the notifications and messages we receive these days is a completely valid response. While some people are just naturally talented at juggling a million things at once, I’m sure most of us have felt overwhelmed by the amount of things we’re expected to handle all at once at some point or another.
I’m not saying being a bad replier is a good thing – and I hate the idea that my actions may make someone doubt our friendship – but I think we all need to take the pressure off of ourselves a bit and stop apologising so much when it comes to managing our digital behaviour.
For now, then, I’m going to try and stop making excuses for my bad replying, and make an effort to be as honest as possible going forward. I may be a bad replier, but I’m there for my friends and family when they really need me – and isn’t that the most important thing of all?
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