The tyrannical fear of being ‘left on read’ is wrecking romance

Online communication has gone from a fun activity to a fearful endeavour in no time at all  (Shutterstock/Shany Muchnik)
Online communication has gone from a fun activity to a fearful endeavour in no time at all (Shutterstock/Shany Muchnik)

Today, we might chuckle and scoff at older means of communication: the fax, the pager, the answering machine, or the town crier. Not me, though. In fact, I’m getting increasingly jealous of a more inefficient, pre-digital era – a time when you were not absolutely, definitely certain that you were being ignored. Nothing seems to be a bigger source of angst in the modern world than being “left on read”. It’s a term that expresses the sadness that comes from knowing someone has read your message but not replied. It happens on WhatsApp, where two blue ticks mean it’s been seen, but the concept applies on most other platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, iMessage, Twitter, Instagram and more. A jokey TikTok video illustrates the pain, showing a young person going from denial to tears to drinking bleach in the space of around 20 seconds after being left on read.

Of course, it’s not nice to be ignored, not replied to or straight-up ghosted – especially by someone you are currently in a romantic or sexual place with (or want to be). It’s happened to me many times before. Even scrolling through messages from around four months ago, I can see notes from significant people whose last words to me were “Right” or “I’ll check, one sec”. I’m just as guilty, which is why I’d never weigh in with a sarcastic “Still checking then are we?!” In fact, it’s fair to say I’ve been called out for leaving people hanging more than most. And yet, allow me to suggest that we blame the game, not the player. Yes, it’s a craven defence of my own shortcomings – but maybe the fault lies beyond individuals and instead in the always-on culture of the digital age? Walk with me a little...

Sadly, we can safely consign the era of fun online chat to the history books. While early chat platforms such as MSN Messenger will always have a hallowed place in a generation’s hearts for their goofy innocence, our modern tools are so ubiquitous that they offer zero room for charm and whimsy. The modern world of communications has become sterner and more entrenched than we could ever have credited. Read receipts alone – the optional settings that display if you’ve read a message – have an etiquette that seems stricter than the court of Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles. Someone told me the other day that turning off read receipts – as I do – is the sure sign of a “wrong’un”. A friend of almost 15 years considers me and my ilk to be shiftless and untrustworthy, simply because I crave the feeling of not being surveilled for every waking moment? In a reputational battle between tech and me, tech is somehow winning with ease.

More worryingly ingrained is the idea that we deserve an answer to everything ASAP. Again, this feels like something that ever-smarter technology is slowly pushing into our romantic lives, with barely any analysis. “If an AI chatbot can tell me 17,000 uses for bitumen in 0.78 seconds, why can’t you tell me if you’re free on Tuesday?” someone might reasonably start to ask of their partner. Our tolerance of an “always-on” digital culture means that increasingly the real skill of romantic correspondence is in speed and brevity, not quality, depth or actual romance even. If you’re the kind of ruthlessly efficient person who can achieve the perennial executive goal of “Inbox Zero” then well done: you’re more cut out for modern romance than, say, any of the great Romantic Poets. Imagine Burns, Byron or Blake trying to keep things poetic, profound and exxxtra sexy on WhatsApp while getting pinged every 45 seconds and trying to avoid being a horrible person by leaving someone on read. They’d end up ditching a well-observed simile about the natural world and start bashing out harried messages like “Can’t Tuesday, football. Shame. Thanks” in a heartbeat.

‘Increasingly the real skill of romantic correspondence is in speed and brevity, not quality, depth or actual romance even’ (Getty)
‘Increasingly the real skill of romantic correspondence is in speed and brevity, not quality, depth or actual romance even’ (Getty)

While it’s true that I do leave people in that vague, ambiguous state way too much, it’s as much a protest against the stress of modern communication as anything else. WhatsApp was only founded in 2009. It’s gone from a convenient way to organise a big night out to the bedrock of communications for Her Majesty’s Government in what feels like the blink of an eye. In the process, WhatsApp and other communication apps have forced genuine, heartfelt and considered romantic language to become a round peg unsuccessfully being pushed through modern tech’s square hole. And what of the toll on our wellbeing? I don’t think being responsive 24/7 can exist in a world that strives for better mental health. My heart says the two can’t exist side by side. One has to give, and personally, I’m a lot more comfortable being cast as a heartless unreplying s*** than hurtling headlong into a mental breakdown.

Despite all this, though, what I struggle to remember is that being slow to reply fundamentally rattles some people I care about. Just because I can tolerate waiting four months for a reply to a dinner date, it doesn’t mean that being “left on read” isn’t an issue for others. And that’s where being an old man shouting at a proverbial cloud is not – in all consideration – enough of an excuse to morally disregard someone’s feelings. It may be a jungle out there in the wilds of modern communication, but if you enter into it and use WhatsApp, iMessage et al, you have to respect the codes by which some might operate by. And so, having appreciated this, I’m enjoying prioritising pace more and more when meeting new people: not just the speed of a relationship, but the speed you feel comfortable conversing too. I’m pleased to report that a few basic questions about how long is too long to be left “on read” goes a long way. I can handle sometimes being left on read if you can? And if not, that’s fine – we can always buy a pair of fax machines.