The ethics behind being left on read

Arja Kumar (TheLorian)

The whole concept of “being left on read” is one that most are unfortunately familiar with. The expression itself refers to when a person has seen, but not responded to, a sender’s (digital) message, and is commonly linked with feeling ignored. Typically, most people distress about this type of situation and are left to wonder why the other person did not reply. Did I say or do something wrong? What is the other person thinking of me? What is the other person doing that is making them so busy to not be able to reply? More so, one is left feeling unsatisfied without a proper and mutual beginning or termination of conversation. 

The issue is thus tied to communication ethics. This specific branch of ethics is concerned with questions about “the good” in relation to how we ought to act when communicating with each other. Typically, modern communication ethics focuses on practical problems concerning institutions, the work place, the media, etc. Yet, modern communication ethics in a person’s personal relationships is still important to consider and understand — especially in an online context.

The act of being left on read implies that the recipient is too busy to talk or does not desire to converse with the sender of the message. It can be an appropriate response with the right people (e.g., those who are very close to you, those who understand you intuitively — everyday family members, intimate friends) in the right situations (e.g., casual conversation, showing the other person something). For example, your beloved sibling leaving your Spongebob memes on read is okay, since you both know each other very well and understand each other’s communication. Yet, being left on read can be an inappropriate, and moreover, indecent response with other people (e.g., those who have a more formal relationship with you —  friends, acquaintances, respected family members, professionals, teachers, students, etc.) in certain situations (e.g., scenarios that strongly invite a response). One such example is that of casual friends that you talk to only on occasion.

As a modern human being, I am no stranger to being left on read. It is one of my biggest pet peeves. One example of poor communication ethics is from an old family friend of mine. We had known each other for years, growing up together and frequently seeing each other as young teens when our families would meet. Though we had not been in close communication as young adults, I still thought we were friends. One day, I was thinking of her and thought to send her a message. I greeted her with a “Hey! How are you?” and asked her a simple question like “Do you need back that cat toy your grandma gave you? I remember you sold it to me when we were five. Found it in my basement.” After many hours, I was left on read. 

My so-called “friend” would not reply to me until five months later with a simple “oh, sorry I didn’t see this until now. No, you can keep it.” Yet, she was active on social media and responded to my mother immediately to get a recommendation letter from her. She posted pictures regularly on Facebook and her chat icon was always active. I do not know how seemingly busy she was in her life, but I intuitively knew that she ignored me. True that she was not obligated to respond to me, but I believe it is the ethical thing to do to acknowledge a person, their reason for communicating with you, and to respond to them appropriately and politely. Especially if they have good intentions with you or just want to ask how you are.

This incident reflected the harsh truth that people may ignore you unless you are relevant to them and their lives somehow or unless you can do something for them. In this case, I perhaps could not be of any social or status benefit to my “friend.” Yet, my mother could in the way that she could greatly increase my “friend’s” chance at getting a job and boost her status. This all comes down to the fact that people make time for the people they want to make time for. More so, people’s response to you (or lack of) not only reflects their level of interest and respect for you, but also their personal sense of ethical behavior in society.

One example of good communication ethics was from an old professor of mine. I sent her an email asking how she was and a simple question about some practical matter. She responded she was doing well and hoped that I was too. She said she saw my message, truthfully, did not know the answer, and would not get to respond properly until tomorrow, as she was busy with a lot of things that day. Though she was not obligated to respond, her two-lined email response made what I said feel acknowledged. She could have easily ignored me or responded an untimely while later (since my matter was not the most urgent or relevant), but she communicated promptly and politely. This gave me a good impression of her as a good listener, and made me connect with her more. Most importantly, I believe it reflected her good sense of communication ethics and the fact that she was a responsible and honest communicator. 

Good communication is vital to developing a meaningful relationship with others and building trust. We cannot rightly judge whether a person is meaningful to us without giving them a chance to actually speak with us. And we should give ourselves a chance to seek to understand them. I believe purposefully ignoring others’ messages or attempts to communicate with you is unethical. It is so because it does nothing to contribute to doing good for the individual or society. Rather, it shatters the opportunity to foster a meaningful relationship. 

Virtual-messaging culture does seem to dissociate people from normal communication etiquette. Perhaps being left on read is not a matter of ethics, but more so, having good manners. We should give each person a chance to say what they intend to say to us and reciprocate their communication. (Of course, the case is different if somebody is being rude to you, but most people are just trying to talk to you.) At least acknowledge the other person. At least say “yes, I got your message!” Or, “yes, I heard you!” Even a simple thumbs-up or smiley face works wonders. That is enough decency to make another person feel heard instead of staring at an empty abyss, blank wall, or read receipt.

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