Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.
In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.
SINGAPORE — I was in the middle of a work meeting last year when I suddenly received a phone call from a friend.
As I could not take the call then, I sent a text to check if everything was okay. It turned out she was hoping to ask for a favour.
She said she had initially wanted to just drop me a message, but decided to call me instead, and joked that if she had texted me I would only reply the next week.
Though we laughed it off, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt as I knew her statement, while made in jest, carried some truth.
I always cringe a little when I think of text conversations I’ve left on the backburner, making a mental note to respond at a better time, until they snowballed and I had hundreds of unacknowledged messages.
I have even intentionally blocked out time to clear a backlog of text messages I had not yet replied, but this only resulted in a slew of replies to my replies, and I was so overwhelmed that I found myself caught in the same cycle again.
“Bad” texting has always been an issue for me, but it was exacerbated as I grew older and became more protective of my time online outside of school and work — often switching my phone to “Do Not Disturb” mode outside of these hours.
This has led me to confront the issue head on through many attempts, because I always find myself asking: Am I a terrible friend if I am a bad texter?
Should I awkwardly try to respond to messages after days, weeks, or sometimes even months, of silence, though it might seem inauthentic by that point?
Or do I just fall off the face of the earth and not reply at all — but risk ghosting people I care about, and hope they would one day reach out to me again despite my silence, so we can resume our friendship?
Of course, I could also try to text better — but why do I feel so guilty for being a bad texter, yet still can’t shake off my inertia?
I spoke to a couple of professors who study communications and they agree that in today’s mobile-first age, there is a general common understanding about what constitutes “good” or “bad” texting etiquette.
Associate Professor Brian Lee, head of the communications programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said that “bad” texting is typically defined by an unreasonable length of time between responses or a poor quality of responses, or both.
Dr Jeremy Sng, a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences, said that everyone has a different baseline of mobile phone use, though, including how often they check their messages or how quickly they respond, which could lead to misaligned expectations.
And so someone who is often quick to reply their messages may perceive someone else who responds slower as a “poor texter”, even though this is rather subjective, he added.
OVERCOMING ‘BAD’ TEXTING
Even if all this may be true, what should I do about the guilt I feel over my many unread messages and how do I overcome my inertia to respond?
A first step, I was told, was to examine my own priorities and values.
Mr Kenny Liew, a clinical psychologist at Mind What Matters, said: “When we find ourselves feeling guilty about a dilemma, or finding it challenging to change, it is often helpful to examine if there is a conflict of values.
“Regardless of the choice we make, we would likely feel guilty about having to de-prioritise the other value that we care about.”
In my case, I have a difficult time balancing the relationships I care about with my need for quiet time and space.
But ghosting is not the answer, Mr Liew said. This refers to the act of suddenly ceasing all communication without any explanation.
“Clarity and timeliness are valued in good communication,” he added. “As such, ghosting may not be as effective, compared with apologising first and then addressing the other party’s topic.”
Mr Michael Thong, a clinical psychologist and professional counsellor at Rogerian Psychology Centre, said that we can also take little steps to actively improve the way we text.
If we are overwhelmed when we first receive a message, we can acknowledge the text and inform the other party that we would respond at a later time, he suggested, adding that people should try not to delay responding to a text past one day.
Regardless of the changes we choose to make, Mr Thong acknowledged that change is hard for everyone, because it requires us to break away from comfortable habits and patterns to learn something new, which requires effort.
Still, if forming the new habit is important to us, we should do it anyway, and aim to stay consistent for three months, he added.
BALANCING MY NEEDS AND FRIENDSHIPS
Truth be told, I’m not sure I am ready to start responding to all messages within 24 hours, but I do know now that it would be better if I were to communicate my unavailability to my friends when they text me, and to also ensure that I respond thoughtfully when I am able to properly reply.
It was also quite comforting to hear from Dr Sng that my slow response time is not entirely a bad thing.
“I think a lot of (texting etiquette) involves subtle negotiation or observation of the other party’s expectation and habits,” he said.
Time stamps and read receipts are an indication of how long people take to read and respond to our messages, and over a period of interactions, we would be able to “figure out their norm” and come to a mutually agreed rate of response, he added.
And by establishing our own boundaries, we are reminding others that not everyone adheres to the same norms, he said.
Mr Liew said that this goes both ways, and it means that if someone were to take longer than I liked to reply to my messages, I should also bear this in mind.
“It can be a form of self-confidence to not only know what our boundaries and expectations are, and also not to take it personally when others flout our expectations,” he added.
While my friends may still have to put up with my “bad” texting habits, I could show them that I care about them by being ever more intentional in maintaining my friendships offline.
Dr Sng said: “If you still have meaningful meet-ups face-to-face, I’m sure your friends or partners can see that you are sincere and you actually care about them — just that you prefer not to text as much or you’re not as good at texting and expressing yourself over text.
“If you put in effort when you actually meet them, I think most reasonable people would be able to see that.”
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Deborah Lau is a journalist at TODAY. She has written about community and social issues, the environment, and the arts and culture.