Digital Silence, and Its Impact on Relationships

There are many situations when silence in our environment is golden. For instance, if you are an introvert and you need to rejuvenate, or if you are in a movie theater and want to get totally engrossed in the film. How about a stay-at-home mom with three young children who is trying to catch a nap? Yes, silence can be golden, maybe even platinum.

However, when it shows up in email, text or social media interactions, “silence” tells a story. And it usually doesn't have a happy ending.

Sometime in the last few months, a cartoon surfaced on Facebook. It showed a young woman telling her girlfriends that her boyfriend had yet to respond to her text. The friends were all aghast. Remarks such as, “How could he treat you like that?” “He’s toast!” were flying about. Other remarks were made that one could expect from a cohort easily slipping into the subculture of “guys are jerks." (Another topic for sure).

The punchline, which was kind of surprising as the best punch lines are, was that male friends who were told of this offense, rather than defending the boyfriend, actually called him out. “What? He did that?" And the culprit was confronted with “Hey dude, you didn’t return her text? What's up with that?”

John Gottman, a top relationship expert and researcher, created what became known as his "love lab" in 1986. Through the course of his work and research he explored how couples interact. He found what he termed the Masters and the Disasters. This research lead to his findings that the way we respond to another wanting our attention determines the strength and endurance of that relationship.

I doubt, however, that Gottman foresaw the challenges inherent in the proliferation of our interactions across Facebook, WhatsApp, texting, and email. These platforms are now second nature to more than just millennials and have made our previous expectations of response time obsolete. Do an internet search on something like “What is a timely response to a text?” and you can find pages of entries like this post from four years ago:

  "Response-Time Expectations in the Internet Age: How Long is Too Long?"

Their survey showed that during work hours people expect a romantic partner to respond to a text within five minutes, and to family or friend within one hour. During non-work hours it changes a bit. Now family members are right up there with romantic partners at five minutes. And friend moves up, too, ranging between five and fifteen minutes.

This phenomenon of not hearing back to a text or email is seen as “silence." And it’s not the golden kind. There are even tips on pithy comebacks when someone has “ignored” your text, and interpretations for when "he takes too long to respond."

A few generations ago it was pretty simple: When you wanted to see or talk to someone you either visited in person or sent a letter. Letters could take weeks for delivery. These days, someone in Australia texts someone in Greenland and it’s delivered within seconds. Think about this: What is your tolerance for “silence?” How long before you get annoyed, irritated and wonder ”what’s wrong?” Why am I being ignored?” How long before you go into a panic, wondering if something bad has happened and make a follow up phone call, or worse, take it as proof of your low priority and withdraw a bit emotionally from the relationship?

With email we have more tolerance, but not much. Ask yourself how much of the golden stuff is acceptable after you have sent an email. How long before you judge the other person as being rude or disinterested in you?

The Gottmans describe this dynamic as responding to “bids for attention." I like to think of it as a volley—like in a game of ping-pong or tennis. Wait too long to return the ball and it drops out of play. 

In communication between friends or partners it works like this. Someone says, “Hey, honey, there’s a red squirrel at the feeder” (a favorite at our house). Now, how the other responds determines the quality of the feelings generated in the relationship. If the other is watching television or reading (probably on their device!) and just mumbles “hmm” without looking up, it’s easy to think you have a lower priority to whatever they are doing. And frequent non-responsiveness like this can dull your future desire to interact with the other and erode the relationship. But if the other person stops for a mere moment, withdraws from what they are doing and (even momentarily) shifts their attention to you, awesome! Now there’s an opportunity for connection and you feel seen and acknowledged. The Gottmans say Masters respond quickly and positively to bids for attention and this is a predictor for long-term success in a relationship. Whereas the lack of this, as seen in Disasters, predicts divorce and failure. Hmmmm.

There’s a lot of reference to the minimal output, maximum expectation of communication these days. Whether it is the new spelling etiquette that has the old school ranting or the “swipe right” feature on online dating sites that lets you signal interest in someone by just “swiping” your screen. 

With these online dating sites you don’t even have to write your own message! The app lets the other party know you have indicated interest. On some sites you can subscribe to a “meet me” feature that let’s you by-pass any written or telephone contact before arranging to meet up in person! Talk about immediate relationship with absolutely no personal investment or exchange.

So, is it possible, or even desirable, to apply the same guidelines John and Julie Gottman advise to use with bids tor attention to communication over our devices?

Social media has really upped the ante in terms of the impact of the lapse time between receiving a communication and responding. With these new expectations we have opened the door to everything ranging from obsessive, staged or obligatory “conversations” to misunderstandings and hurt feelings that lead to assumptions that are followed by behaviors and actions based on the negative and erroneous story lines we tell ourselves.

The question arises, when is silence golden and when is it the death of connection and relationships? Even in these days of devices with random pop up alerts informing us of email, text, and PM’s, we still have choices of how and when to respond. But they are not without consequences to our own well being and to that of our relationships. In this dilemma we are faced with deciding how important our present task is to us, the consequences of interrupting it, and what effect our response time has on another's bid for attention and our relationship with them.

Are our relationships this fragile that even an occasional hour or two of silence is interpreted as ignoring? Have we become so narcissistic that we expect to be top priority in everyone's life? Is the demand for an immediate reply, regardless of what is going on within us or in our lives, compromising the very fabric of relationships?  When did we stop savoring the spaces that allow our thoughts and feelings to marinate before rushing on to the next exchange? How deep can a relationship get without these spaces that let us integrate and reflect on our feelings and thoughts- our true responses?

How do you carve some space out for yourself when there is this expectation of immediate response that has even entered into face-to-face encounters? When as you, momentarily, stop to ponder your response, the other person turns their attention to their phone and you are met within seconds to pressuring comments such as “did you hear me”, “what do you think” even if your body language indicates you are engaged in the conversation.

So do we need new rules? Or at least mutual understanding between friends about what the rules are?

What do you think? Are you comfortable with the expectations regarding response time within your communications? Do you find yourself placing similar judgements and expectations on others?

Action Steps

1. In the name of sanity and protecting our sometimes fragile relationships, how about having a voice to voice (or better yet, face to face) dialogue with your friends and loved ones and be clear about the expectations you each have regarding text, email, PMs and VM. Then negotiate something clear that lets you each be comfortable and feeling attended to and cared for. (There are apps that take this into consideration and program your replies to others based on your own criteria).

2. You can also give a mini instruction in your communications, i.e. “Would be great to hear back from within one hour.”

My best advice is, regardless what platform you use to engage with friends and loved ones, keep yourself and others safe in your relationships with honest and real communication.

As a wise man, Prem Rawat, once said, “We are each other's greatest gift.”

May we steward our gifts well.