There is a contemporary horror of being “left on read,” of your text message being opened but not replied to. Perceived but not acknowledged.
This feature on instant messaging apps signals that your message has been opened through a little “seen” or two check marks in the bottom corner of your screen.
It seems like an invisible, barely there feature, but the read receipt has the power to spark a variety of negative emotions. It also reveals a lot about the deepest desires of human communication and how technology changed our interactions.
A survey by Medium found that being left on read can cause fear, anxiety and feelings of rejection. Emily Balcetis, associate professor of Psychology at New York University, says people often assume they’re being deliberately ignored or might have done something wrong, instead of considering innocent explanations.
“It’s quite likely that our expectations are more negative than is really true in reality, so we set ourselves up to expect the worst, interpreting things in the worst way,” Balcetis says.
We don’t remember everything. Instead, many studies suggest the most monumental, negative and dramatic memories stick out as evidence when we explain things.
“We create a whole narrative about this other person or about ourselves, that likely isn’t true and is likely harsher than reality warrants,” Balcetis says. “But that’s our reality.”
The read receipt is a digital social cue aimed at closing the distance online interaction creates. Stanley Chang, an associate professor at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, says face-to-face communication entails a variety of cues. Things like body language, facial expressions and the tone of your voice help us figure out how to best respond to the person we’re speaking with.
Instant messaging erases all of those factors, and the read receipt is an attempt at closing that distance. But when there’s no explanation as to why someone was left on read, the feature can paradoxically cause more misunderstanding.
“Developers try to add cues but cannot replicate the real physical cues. But these new features lead to different kinds of social cues,” Chang says. “I think people just have to interpret them differently from face-to-face cues.”
This means opening yourself up to the understanding that the receipt is nothing more than solely a sign that your message was read, instead of assuming the worst.
There are a variety of reasons you might be left on read.
In a 2022 study, Chang found that while some leave others on read to show they are displeased or to get attention, many users do it to tone down arguments or because they think the conversation has ended. Others do it to take time crafting a response or simply because they’re busy.
Balcetis says jumping to negative conclusions can hinder us from meaningful connection.
“If we were always on the lookout for the tiger that was gonna eat us, or the fire that was gonna catch us, we’ll still die because, if that’s all we’re paying attention to, we’ll miss the opportunities for warmth, for social relationships, for food,” Balcetis says.
Surface and experience designer Lujayn Alhddad examined the varying levels of desire people have for read receipts depending on their closeness to the other person.
She found people don’t want receipts with acquaintances. Alhddad says their weak link means they aren’t too concerned about whether or not their message has been seen. People might want to know if their message was read out of efficiency in work relationships, but with both, being left on read doesn’t incite a wave of emotions.
In terms of strong relationships, such as with a close friend or a romantic partner, Alhddad found we generally want to have the receipts on. We’re invested in these connections so we want to know if our message was perceived. And while a pressure to respond might urge some to keep it off, we still desire to see if our own message was read.
Strong relationships also have a deep connection that can be immune from the emotional throes of being left on read. Take for example Balcetis and her husband.
“Whether he replies to me or not, I don’t particularly care. I’m not going to think he doesn’t love me anymore or that our marriage is falling apart because we have a solid foundation of trust and understanding,” Balcetis said.
But at the same time, being left on read can cut deep when we feel that we owe more to our close ties. That’s where it becomes important to think positively and clearly communicate.
“Most people don’t want to hurt each other. Most people want to have smooth interactions. Most people want to be happy,” Balcetis says. “But it can be hard to realize that something has landed the wrong way because you’re not getting any input from the other person.”
There’s something to be said about the ability to defer response nowadays. When face-to-face speaking was the only means of interaction, people couldn’t just walk away mid-conversation and come back to it hours or days later.
Chang says this change stems from the natural evolution of humans and technology. Instant gratification and short attention spans make it easier for people to get distracted from online conversations, especially when your partner isn’t replying immediately.
The expectations around instant messaging change when you look at it as a modern replacement to face-to-face conversation or mailed letters. It toes the line between the two.
If you see texting as a form of active conversation, it feels odd to have your message ignored—as if someone you were having a face to face conversation with simply just walked away. This is where your emotions can get tied into the mix.
But if you see texting as a modern form of correspondence, cues like whether or not it has been read shouldn’t be of concern. Historically, people have just mailed letters without worrying about cues because they hadn’t yet existed in the first place. Send your message off into the universe and hope for a response at some point.
As a social species, Balcetis says we are socially responsible. It’s important to communicate our expectations in texting and think about our own relationship with the medium.
She adds that face to face interaction is key to strong relationships. If you’re in a tense conversation, picking up the phone or speaking in-person can smooth out misunderstandings. In-person interactions can also help strengthen relationships to overlook the horror of read receipts.
“The more that we can get back to the things that actually make us happy, engaging with other people in the real world,” Balcetis says. “I think that’s the goal.”