You get a notification on your phone. It’s a message from a close friend and the preview suggests they’re messaging about a conflict they’ve been having with a mutual friend. You feel awkward, torn between the two friends, and you really need to focus on the work you’re doing.
Maybe you should ignore the message until later? But then the conflict could be getting serious. Plus, you usually respond so quickly to messages — will they know you’re ignoring them? You could open the message to check how important it is, but then they’ll know you’ve read it. Does that mean you’ll have to respond?
Negotiating our availability is complex, especially now as mobile technologies have made us constantly connected. How do we limit and negotiate our availability in these conditions? In particular, how do we manage availability in the context of friendships, which don’t come with clear rules about contact?
To explore these questions, I conducted a study into the messaging practices of young adults. This involved semi-structured interviews with now 39 people aged 18-30. Young adults are a rich source of information for studying how we negotiate our availability because they are typically heavy messaging users and their social worlds are often shifting as they leave school and move into work and higher education.
I found that young adults have developed a wide range of tactics for managing and limiting mobile interactions. Some of these tactics involve using the features of mobile devices and messaging apps, like temporarily turning on flight mode, using apps that limit phone use, or muting large group chats.
Other tactics involve the content of messages. One example of these discursive tactics is signalling the end of a conversation by replying with just an emoji or sticker. Other examples include using short responses to discourage the other person from continuing a conversation, or lying about why a message wasn’t responded to sooner. Sometimes these lies are simple like ‘sorry, fell asleep’, although they can be much more elaborate.
A third set of tactics involves strategically delaying responses. One example of this is methodically increasing the time between responses to take the momentum out of a conversation. Another example is to continually reply slowly so that people learn not to expect a fast response from you.
Young adults use these tactics for a range of reasons. They might be trying to reduce distractions so that they can carry out a task, like studying or spending time in-person with others. Other reasons include avoiding obligations, delaying difficult conversations, or limiting their phone use.
In some cases, restricting availability can also be a way of sending a message about the relationship. For instance, delaying responses and sending minimal replies can signal that a person wants to limit the intimacy in a relationship.
One important trend across these tactics is that participants use them for negotiating mobile interactions with both very close friends, as well as distant friends or acquaintances.
This is interesting because it contradicts the trend in app development toward features that increase transparency about availability between intimate contacts. Instagram’s new messaging app, Threads, for instance is premised on continually displaying a person’s current availability to their close friends. However, my research suggests that, even with close friends, we want control over information about our availability.
Another trend across these tactics is that they’re fairly avoidant. The amount of hinting and signalling involved might lead some people to see these tactics as evidence that millennials lack soft skills – that they are hiding behind their screens rather than having frank and open conversations about their availability. So, to contextualise participants’ practices, I compared them with methods people used in the past to manage their availability.
Specifically, I researched 19th century practices of exchanging house visits and calling cards, and mid-20th century practices of exchanging domestic landline telephone calls. In short, I found a lot of parallels.
For example, The Seventeen Book of Etiquette & Entertaining, published in 1963, advises its teenage female readers to use “polite white lies” to end telephone calls. One example they suggest is: ‘I have some cookies in the oven. I think they’re burning. Meet you at five.’
White lies were also a common tactic for avoiding house calls in the 19th century as domestic staff would tell unwanted visitors that the person they were calling on was “not at home”.
These white lies are similar to the ones that people use today when explaining why they have been slow to respond to a message or why they need to end a messaging conversation. Rather than burning cookies, people refer to being busy or not seeing the notification, but the basic function of the lie is still the same.
Overall, comparisons with these earlier periods demonstrate that we have always had to work at managing our availability and have often been evasive in our methods for doing so.
That said, managing availability in today’s context does involve some unique challenges. My research indicates that one of these challenges is a comparative lack of clarity around etiquette.
For example, some young adults feel that it is okay to respond slowly to a message if the person who sent it is a close friend. This is because the trust and intimacy in the relationship means that the other person won’t perceive the delay as a sign of rejection. Others, though, feel that closer friends deserve the fastest responses because replying quickly signals that you value the other person.
There was also disagreement about issues like when it was okay to block someone, the level of urgency associated with different platforms, and whether it really mattered how quickly or slowly you responded.
This comparative lack of clarity around etiquette is likely partly due to the way messaging platforms and mobile operating systems are constantly changing. Driven by market imperatives to differentiate their platforms from each other, the developers of mobile devices and messaging apps continually roll out new features. This makes it more difficult for an accepted etiquette to coalesce.
This might seem unimportant but several participants had experienced real tension within friendships, and even had friendships end, over different opinions about the etiquette of messaging availability.
It means that negotiating our availability is likely to remain a fraught, but increasingly necessary business.
Just remember, don’t let those cookies burn.