I hate texting. While I do think it can be a fun way to chat or an easy way to convey information, it’s definitely not how I want to have an actual conversation. Digital communication, though, got many of us through the hardest moments of the pandemic. With the coming of winter and the uptick in Delta awareness, some of us are starting to slow down our in-person hangs, but that doesn’t mean we want to go back to having an all digital life. I also don’t want to come off as some kind of rude luddite who ghosts people in the face of armageddon, though, so I asked an etiquette expert how to end a real time text conversation gracefully or, better yet, how to avoid one altogether.
“The best way to end a conversation with someone is to tell them that you’re ending it,” Elaine Swann, a Los Angeles-based etiquette expert, tells me. “You can simply say, ‘I’m hopping off, I’ll get back with you later.’” The simple elegance underlying this strategy is genius, and it’s also honest, which is something that’s important to most of us. One of the weird things about communicating in the digital age is that everyone knows that you have your phone near you, but they also know that you may not actually be available, says Swann, which means that we all have to be a little more direct about expressing our boundaries.
Having boundaries, whether you draw them metaphorically via text or in real physical space, isn’t rude, says Swann. But because a lot of us aren’t skillful about creating and maintaining boundaries, you may have to pad your desire to end a text with a small bit of reassurance. “The key is to soften the blow by expressing to them that you will communicate with them again later,” says Swann. This simple addendum — I will talk to you again — lets someone know that while you are ending this particular exchange, you aren’t cutting off communications.
If it seems bizarre that we should have to reassure people that we aren’t abandoning them just because we can’t text right now, well, the reality of modern life is that it has made us all a bit neurotic about how quickly we respond to each other. Delayed response time is often interpreted as a slight at best, and at worst, evidence of total relationship extermination. If you’ve ever suffered the pain and indignity of being ghosted, you don’t need me to explain how hurtful that can be. But Swann says that, for the good of all, it’s time for us to take back our agency — with care.
“I want people to recognize that they have power to put boundaries on how they communicate with others,” says Swann. “We have to grab that power back and not allow the way people interact with us to force us to do something we don’t want to do when we don’t want to do it.” The boundaries we create in our text conversations are good for everyone because they ensure that no one has to communicate out of a sense of obligation or a fear of being spurned. Instead, we can communicate for the joy of connection when and how we have the time and space to honor that connection.
Okay, that all sounds beautiful, but what if you don’t want to have real time text convos — like ever? Swann says that you don’t have to. It’s as simple as that. “You can either tell them when you’ll communicate with them later or do not respond,” says Swann. You will probably respond with more eloquence and emotional intelligence if you don’t hit them back right away. “Allow yourself those few moments to pivot,” says Swann.
In this moment in which it feels like so much is out of our control, it’s more important than ever that we are able to feel our own agency and to let other people feel theirs. “We can take back time,” Swann says. “We have to control our actions and the space that we dwell in.” These simple actions may not cure all the overwhelm of this pandemipocalypse season, but refusing to react immediately to every ping and ding is a small first step we can all take to feeling a little more like the intelligent humans we are.