Love In The Time Of Read Receipts
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Erin1 tries to be honest with her boyfriend of a little over a year about everything except for one thing: He doesn’t know he has his read receipts on, and she’s certainly not about to tell him.

Every time she texts him, her iPhone tells her that her message has been delivered, and then a little later (or sometimes a lot later) it alerts her that he’s read it. She texted him one night, “How was dinner?” and he didn’t respond until the next day around noon, but the phone tells her he just saw it, one minute before he texted back.

Early in their relationship, she questioned whether he even liked her all that much. She’s a texter. Her phone is usually nearby, and she always texts back, sometimes immediately. But he wasn’t communicating. Was he just stuck in meetings? Or was he giving her a cold shoulder? “I used to think he was reading my texts and then just responding when he wanted,” she says. “Never quite blowing me off, but not super engaged or interested in dating me long-term.”

Then, last summer, her boyfriend had to make a trip to the Apple store, and when he returned, his read receipts had been mysteriously turned on. “It was such a game changer because I could see that he was texting me whenever he had his phone,” she says. “It helped me not be so in my head about what his texting habits mean and to just focus on what he’s saying.

“It is a very big part of my relationship with him, but it’s not a part of his relationship with me, which is just such a weird dynamic.” Erin does not have her read receipts turned on for anyone.

She’s not alone. Of the 20 people who spoke with Digg about the role of read receipts in their relationships, almost all admitted to having a conversation with a partner or potential partner about their texting habits. It is easier than ever to communicate with a person you’re sleeping with, but there have never been more ways to do so, more factors to consider and more tea leaves to read.

It is easier than ever to communicate with a person you’re sleeping with, but there have never been more ways to do so, more factors to consider and more tea leaves to read.

For most of human history, communicating has contained an element of the unknown. Did your letter arrive at its destination safely? Did the messenger remember the right details? Did the answering machine record your message fully or cut it off? Did T9 completely destroy a normal thing you typed and turn it into a deranged plea because you were texting under your desk? Did that way-too-earnest email you sent get read, or was it filtered to spam? The introduction of read receipts, and with it tracking technology, removed the unknown. The wiggle room. The plausible deniability that everyone relies on once in awhile. Who among us has not leaned on the, “Sorry, just seeing this!” in order to save face?

For most people, the ability to know when someone had read your message arrived in 2011 with the release of iOS 5, which added read receipts to iMessage. Instead of just seeing that a message was “delivered,” users could now see a timestamp of when their text had been read.

This isn’t a new idea, of course. For more than a century, the United States Postal Service has offered read receipts in one form or another. In 1855, they introduced Registered Mail, which essentially would give a sender a receipt of delivery if they requested one. Exactly 100 years later, the USPS rolled out Certified Mail, which, as the name suggests, certified delivery by giving senders a literal receipt. By 2014, the USPS arguably took read receipts a step further by allowing people to see scans of mail that was about to be delivered to them with a service called Informed Delivery.

But the read receipt is instant. With a single swipe, a user can not only see when their buddy responded, but how much time elapsed between when they looked at the message and when they responded.

It’s not perfect, of course. “Plenty of times have I opened a message, sending the read receipt, got distracted and then forgot to reply, and that entirely defeats the purpose of read receipts,” says Carson Modrall, a 26-year-old associate attorney, who has her read receipts on for specific people.

In 2015, Apple released an update that allows read messages to be turned off for everyone, or turned on for only select people. WhatsApp has the same technology, allowing the blue ticks that indicate a message has been delivered and read to be switched off. Snapchat, Instagram Direct and Facebook Messenger all have read receipts that cannot be turned off. Even emails are tracked now with browser extensions and email applications. It is estimated that more than 19% of conversational email is tracked.

When Laurelei Litke, a 24-year-old Houston resident who works for HealthLabs.com, started dating her boyfriend about six years ago, she didn’t have a smartphone. About a year ago, though, they had a conversation and decided to turn them on. “We agreed that a phone should never be used as a digital leash,” says Litke. “It’s okay to not respond if you’re in the middle of something… but a read receipt helps you to show that you’ve at least gotten the message and will respond eventually.” Her boyfriend is in a band that tours often, and she says the knowledge that he has seen her message is comforting.

But read receipts don’t have the same effect on everyone. “We know that you can use technology to enhance and increase connection,” says Stacy Hubbard, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “But it’s also very easy to allow it to sabotage our connections.”

“This feature of being able to know whether your partner read your text message may have the power to create and/or increase feelings and behavior similar to symptoms of attachment anxiety and make relationships more fragile,” says Dr. Danielle Forshee, a psychologist and relationship therapist. Forshee explains that current research shows that cellphone usage is directly related to relationship satisfaction. Our cell phones allow us to communicate with one another even when we’re apart, creating the feeling of attachment even at a distance. Read receipts can make that connection stronger, or more tenuous.

Rezz Dennis hosts Textually Active, a podcast about dating and relationships in the digital age, and she uses her read receipts more intentionally. She and her now-fiancé both turned theirs on when they began dating exclusively more than two years ago. It helped her to know when a conversation was happening. “Sometimes you just need a quick response, but sometimes you’re having a conversation via text,” says Dennis. “Knowing that he had read the message helped me know that the conversation was happening now. It’s like on AIM when you could see that someone was online. You know that now is a good time to chat.”

“From working with and talking to people both single and in committed relationships, it seems that the true benefit to read receipts would be if you are in a committed partnership,” says Hubbard. This is because a lot of texting in committed relationships doesn’t require a well thought-out response. The texts are more schematic: What time is the party we agreed to go to? Are we out of Pop Tarts? Is your trip Tuesday or Wednesday? One person I spoke with told me that she and her sister turned on their mother’s read receipts without telling her, so that they would know she had read important messages like what time her daughter was landing at the airport.

My husband and I both have read receipts on, but a few weeks ago he turned his off for everyone in his phone, and forgot to turn them back on for me. Usually if I text him while he is at work, he will read it, but probably not have time to respond to it. My text that says something basic like “I want Chipotle for dinner” gets read, and I know he’ll respond to it when he can. It took me almost a week to realize he’d turned them off, because I usually don’t pay that much attention to them. (I have my read receipts on for everyone.) But one day, he hadn’t “seen” any of my messages in more than six hours. I knew he was supposed to be on a construction site that day, and immediately my mind began to spiral.

“In circumstances where the message has not been replied to within a perceived expected timeframe, anxieties and insecurities ramp up and worst-case scenarios run through the partner’s mind,” says Forshee. Considering I had all but assumed he was dead because he hadn’t looked at the video of our dumb dog catching a snowball in her mouth, this seems accurate.

 Molly Brooks

The danger zone for read receipts is in early or insecure relationships. There’s a reason Tinder and Bumble don’t show you when someone has looked at your message. The read receipt creates a narrative. That’s part of why they are so controversial. Some people absolutely hate read receipts and think they will kill all conversation, others (me) think they’re fine and helpful in certain contexts. Early on in a relationship or crush, though, you have no idea where the other person stands.

Reading a message with read receipts on, Forshee says, is a form of nonverbal intentional behavior. In a new relationship, though, that intention is unclear. Are read receipts on to increase transparency? Are they off to hide something? Do they get turned on at some point as a signal of intimacy?

“The experience that many people have in early dating phases, or just getting to know someone, is worrying that somebody’s ignoring you or you worrying that you feel like you have to respond quickly to a message,” says Hubbard.

The read receipts on their own say something. One woman told me that she has all of her read receipts on because she wants the men she dates to know that she has seen their message and chosen not to respond. If they aren’t saying something that advances the conversation, she wants them to know she saw it and chose not to say anything. “Some people must totally hate it,” she says. “But usually people just think they’re on by mistake. They’ll ask me like ‘do you know these are on?’ But I do. I like them.”

Over the course of reporting this piece, I brought up the premise to dozens of people at bars and parties about whether they had their read receipts turned on. Everyone, regardless of where they stand, seems to understand why someone would have them off or on, but remains firmly unconvinced to change themselves. “Oftentimes, I see a text and then don’t respond for a couple of hours, which is my right as an American, and why I would never turn them on,” someone told me.

Brad, a single man who works in consulting, told me that he absolutely hated when girls he messaged didn’t have them on. “I want to know that you’ve seen what I said so that I know if you’re ignoring me,” he says. “If I ask you out or suggest a place, and you see my message and don’t respond, then I know I can move on. Otherwise, I’m like stuck in this gray zone.” When asked if he had his own read receipts on, though, Brad said, “Oh fuck no.”

Of the 12 people who are currently single whom I spoke to, seven of them (four women and three men) wanted the people they were dating to turn on their read receipts, but did not want to turn on their own. This, they felt, would give them an advantage, extra knowledge. There is power in keeping your own feelings close to your chest while someone else displays their vulnerability.

Read receipts are divisive, controversial and can be easily misread. They can also help you communicate more effectively…

Therapists agree that the best way to deal with read receipts is to have a conversation about them as early on in a relationship as possible. “Talk to your new love interest or committed partner about your expectations, needs, wants and feelings around texting and messaging,” says Hubbard. “What are our individual core needs on this issue and what are we flexible about… then, hopefully you can come up with some sort of compromise that works for both of you.”

Read receipts are divisive, controversial and can be easily misread. They can also help you communicate more effectively if both parties mutually agree to them — or mutually decide against them. “For those relationships where this has created distress or conflict, deciding to mutually turn off the read notifications can be romantic,” says Forshee. “This entails learning to trust, sit with discomfort, increases awareness into our own behaviors and allows for closeness by giving freedom. Healthy relationships require freedom.”

Erin texted to follow up a few weeks after we first spoke. She’d broken down and told her boyfriend that he’d unknowingly turned on read receipts. She was right after all; he hadn’t known they were on. Sadly, though, the truth came out in the midst of a break-up. The read receipts, she says, had nothing to do with it.

Ultimately, the read receipt, no matter how convenient or vexing, is not going to change the course of human communication. Here, in the year of our lord 2019, we lay awake at night, watching our texts go from “Delivered” to “Read,” wondering if we’re going to die alone — but it’s the same feeling people have experienced since nature gifted us consciousness. It’s a reminder that we cannot escape the most basic of human conditions: We are all individuals waiting for someone else to respond. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Erin’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Kelsey McKinney is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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