If I'm being honest, texting is a constant source of stress and confusion. First of all, everyone has a different communication style — some people love emojis and gifs, while others prefer to keep it simple. Some people overdo it on the exclamation points, but others can’t even be bothered with a period. And don’t get me started on the amount of time you should wait between texts. If you boyfriend or girlfriend always texts back right away, what does it mean?
I have a major fascination with texting etiquette, specifically what our digital communication style reveals about our romantic relationships. After all, we text back and forth with bae pretty much every day, so it’s a crucial element of how we interact with one another. Last year, to try to answer some of these questions for myself, I teamed up with linguist Michelle McSweeney, who studies the way we communicate online. We started a podcast called Subtext to address the anxieties many people feel about digital dating — and one question we’ve recently been hearing is about how to interpret the time it takes for someone to respond.
First of all, keep in mind that people text at different frequencies, so part of early digital interaction is figuring out how you and your partner like to communicate. “Those norms that you’re establishing at the beginning of your relationship are going to carry through your relationship,” McSweeney advises on the April 5 episode of the podcast. “So if this guy is texting you during the day, and you’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! That’s too much,’ that’s probably indicative of how he texts in his life.” You’re finding out how much daily communication each of you expects from the other.
Frequent texting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it probably means your new boo is excited to get to know you. “They are probably interested in you — especially if those text messages include questions or details,” McSweeney tells Elite Daily. “Questions indicate that they are trying to keep the conversation going and are genuinely interested in finding out who you are. Details indicate self disclosure, telling you more about who they are. Both of these are communication styles that increase intimacy and trust.” If they’re talking to you a lot, they can’t stop thinking about you! And they obviously want to know more.
“I like to think of it less as, how much are you making yourself available, [and more] as how much you’re prioritizing this interaction,” McSweeney says. If bae is always texting you back within 0.2 seconds, it means he or she is willing to put other obligations to the side to stay connected to you. It’s a sweet thing — but it’s also understandable if early on, it just feels like too much.
The best way to deal if you’re overwhelmed is to talk to your partner about it. "When in doubt, ask,” suggests relationship expert Susan Winter. “New daters are nervous daters. If you like them, it's worth an honest conversation.” Share with them how frequently you’d like to be texting, and ask if it’s important that they connect with you a certain amount of times throughout the day. You never know — maybe your partner is texting you back super quickly because they think it’s what you expect of them! You can’t be sure until you ask.
One of the important elements of a new relationship is learning how your texting styles mesh — and if they aren’t working, it’s time to re-evaluate your daily texting habits. Like anyone else, you’re probably easier to reach some days than others, depending on your school or work schedule. And by letting your partner know when you’re busy, they’ll get the hint not to text you as much during that time.
McSweeney recommends a practice called “status grounding," coined by a 2018 study for the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, to establish texting norms with your partner. “Status grounding is saying things like, ‘I’m going to be in class tomorrow morning,’ so the other person doesn’t wait for or look for a message," she says in the podcast. That way, your partner won’t feel like you’re ignoring them simply because you’ve taken a while to respond. “Then you don’t feel any pressure to respond to a message, and they don’t feel any pressure to send a message," McSweeney notes. “You’ve created an artificial boundary that makes you inaccessible … this allays anxieties on both ends.”
Don’t feel pressured to change your texting style to match whatever your partner tends to do. The more you overthink it, the more stressed you’ll likely become. As your relationship progresses, you’ll both feel more secure, so you won’t be constantly questioning what it means when your partner does (or doesn’t) text you back ASAP.