Hello! This post is a little long. Read the more concise and practical version here.
Note: While this post pertains to dating advice and dynamics, it’s also entirely relevant for general social pursuits – eg. Expressing interest in a platonic friendship of someone you admire, or forming a business/professional relationship. In fact it’s these kinds of relationships that I’m more interested in, but discussions of romantic pursuits is a relatable and common starting point.
Recently I saw this image posted on my Facebook and it got me thinking about my own experiences with not receiving replies to text or Facebook messages.
I’ve found a common dynamic when it comes to dating and friendship is I’ll invite a friend or a romantic interest to spend some time together, and I’ll either get no response from them at all, or I’ll get a some kind of ‘I can’t this week, but maybe next week?’ or ‘I have to look at my schedule’.
While these two responses are distinctly different, what they have in common is that being on the receiving end it can be unclear what the response means, especially if you’ve talked before and the engagement has been cordial.
In this post, while I use online dating as an initial vehicle for discussing the dynamics of no-reply and I’m-busy responses. The more important dynamic I’m really interested in, is these responses from people who you know a bit better.
It’s important to acknowledge here that it’s possible that when someone hasn’t replied they may be perfectly interested in whatever relationship it is you’re seeking, but have forgotten/got busy/are feeling depressed. I know personally I tend to stop replying to messages when I get depressed, and it’s not because I don’t like the person who’s messaging me. Equally possible though, is that they haven’t replied because they’re simply not interested.
Why even talk about this?
It might be tempting to suggest that these kinds of social dynamics simply don’t merit this much thought – an emotionally healthy person will simply forget about it till the next time they consider messaging a person. An alternative phrasing is to suggest that these kinds of dynamics apply to people who ‘playing games’ and that socially mature people communicate honestly and in an upfront manner. I think both of these arguments are dismissive and don’t appreciate the complexity of human social interaction. A quick google of terms like ‘sometimes I forget to reply’, ‘when they don’t text back’ reveal plenty of results and memes about the subject, which suggests that it’s a wide spread experience, and is thus worth theorising about.
No reply as a not interested.
In online dating, not replying to a first message is the accepted standard that says ‘not interested’. This isn’t bleak reflection of the state today’s social dynamics, it’s just how it works. It might not be a satisfying conclusion to the person being rejected, but the alternative that the rejecter faces is facing abuse for their rejection, or a person otherwise persisting in the face of explicit rejection. Tinder provides a good mechanism for this kind of rejection – by unmatching the person it both sends a clear signal that you’re interested, as well as not allowing them to send another message protecting you from any abuse.
If we can accept that a no-reply in this context is socially acceptable, and not rude, then we can extend it to include real life dating and social interaction as well. For example, that cute girl you met at a party, who you got the number of, may have decided that she’s no longer interested, and simply not reply.
This ‘silence means rejection’ can further extend itself into rejection of established relationships – notably in the practise of ‘ghosting’ whereby one breaks up with someone by simple blocking them on social media and never talking to them. A technique for ending or toning down friendships is the ‘slow fade’ where one consciously stops initiating conversation, or replying to messages and the relationship naturally winds down.
While I think ghosting might be warranted in some circumstances (eg. the person is the person is a stalker, or following a big fight in which you break up), I’m generally of the opinion that this isn’t a progressive social technique. In my opinion it’s more indicative of social immaturity, and a desire to ‘win the break up’.
I’m busy as a not interested.
In a similar vein, ‘I’m busy’ type responses can be used as a less confrontational alternative to saying ‘I’m not interested’. One could be honest and say ‘I’m not attracted/interested in you’, but that can be quite an awkward conversation, and lead to further awkward interactions in the future. Instead, one uses ‘Sorry, I’m busy that night’ and hope that they get the hint, and the lack of explicit rejection allows the parties to continue interacting in a platonically friendly way.
This is more appropriate where you know the person in real life. For example a mutual friend or a colleague asking you to coffee or a drink after work. In online dating it’s not necessary to give a ‘I’m busy’ – because not replying can suffice.
How to respond to receiving one of these responses?
For the person who’s message isn’t being replied to, it can be difficult to decide how to proceed.
By the nature of a no-reply it can be hard to tell whether:
- As suggested in the meme, the person has simply forgotten or has got busy.
- The message didn’t catch their attention enough for them to be excited enough to reply.
- They receiver actively considered the message, and consciously decided not the reply.
One of the key points to acknowledge here, is that when someone doesn’t reply to a message, it can be either consciously (they see the message and thing ‘No I’m not going to reply’), or unconsciously (they see the message, but don’t get around to replying to it and eventually forget, or they remember later but it feels to awkward to reply then).
Add into the mix an optimism bias, which is seems likely that men have in regards to their attractive appeal, and you can have a situation where the person whose reply has gone unanswered will interpret it as a ‘they’ve forgotten’ rather than as a ‘they’re not interested in me’.
Similarly, receiving an ‘I’m busy’ reply can be ambiguous. It hard to tell whether:
- They’re genuinely busy.
- They’re not interested, and are letting you down softly.
However, with I’m busy messages it can be a bit easier to indicate levels of interest. If the person saying they’re busy is interested in meeting for the date, then they can suggest an alternative date. This removes the onus on the person asking, from having to ask, and expose themselves to rejection again.
This creates quite a clear communication protocol:
The person asking for a date: If you ask for a date, (or have a date cancelled), do not ask again, it’s up to them to suggest an alternative.
The person being asked for a date: If you’re unable to to make it on that day, or you have the date arranged by have to cancel – then if you’re interested in dating that person it’s up to you to immediately suggest an alternative date. If the other party is following this model, they won’t ask again.
So ideally if everyone was following this model, then it would work quite well. The problem is, not everyone may be aware of etiquette to suggest the alternative, and instead for example be too shy to suggest the date alternative themselves, or be assuming that the other will continue to initiate requests.
However, the problem with this robust protocol, is it doesn’t account for asymmetry in social value or importance.
For example, say for the purposes of general interest or career improvement you want to catch up for coffee with a famous politician. You can send them a nice email explaining who you are, and why you want to meet them. They may be genuinely interested in meeting you, but unable to meet you at time of the year. It wouldn’t be reasonable to suggest it’s then up to politician to make the next move to arrange the appointment – it would be up to you to persist and ask again in three months or so.
A simple counter point here is to suggest that if the politician is genuinely interested, they should tell the person ‘Sorry, I’m too busy at the moment, can you try again in a couple of months?’.
Asymmetry of engagement
When I meet a girl who I’m interested in, I’m usually pretty excited about them and think about them a lot, and have to distract myself to avoid texting them too much.
However, it’s not necessarily true that she will have a reciprocal level of engagement toward me.
We could put one’s levels of engagement on a scale like this:
|In love||Thinking about future together, what your kids will look like.|
|Excited||Looking forward to seeing the person again.|
|Pleasant||Enjoying the person’s company, but don’t miss their company when they’re not here.|
|Neutral||Either you remember the person but didn’t find them particularly interesting, or you don’t remember the person.|
|Adverse||You remember the person, but consciously dislike them. You found them offensive.|
Now of course this scale is very naive and can’t reflect the multidimensional nature of our emotions, but it’s a good starting point.
If someone is at the top two tiers of engagement, then they aren’t going to have any trouble messaging the person they’re interested in, because they’re already thinking of them. However, if they’re at a lower tier, they the thought might not occur to them.
It’s tempting to argue that any successful romantic pair occurs when both parties are excited about each other. But this excludes the possibility that a romance can occur when one party isn’t on the other’s radar, but increases their level of engagement through persistence. For example, sending a second opening message on online dating, or continuing talking to someone when you see them in mutual social circles.
In online dating, the initial message may very well have been not a particularly interesting one – perhaps the sender was in an uncreative mood at the time, or perhaps they misjudged things. In this circumstance, sending a second message to pique their interest may be a good idea.
Unfortunately on traditional online dating sites like OkCupid, the reciever can see the previous attempt, and that possibly will reflect badly on the sender. A good feature OkCupid could implement is a ‘delete previous message’ option, though this could be subject to abuse. On Tinder you can unmatch the person, and hope to match again for a clean slate.
Sending a second message
One suggestion is that if one has initiated a request for a date, and for whatever reason it hasn’t panned out (plans got changed, or they didn’t reply), then to simply move on and accept that the relationship isn’t going to happen.
I think this is a naïve strategy that throws the baby out too quickly. It discounts the potential value of initiating a conversation that piques their interest, or discounts that someone might simply have forgotten to reply.
I have a good example to demonstrate this. My older sister met her husband on online dating. They had exchange some messages, but for whatever reason a date didn’t pan out.
A few months later, he messaged her again, mentioning that they’d talked before, and this time a date did happen, and less than a year later they were married and pregnant. The husband-to-be in this scenario could have held the thought that ‘I’ve already tried here, it didn’t happen, therefore I shouldn’t try again’. But as you can see in this example, his sending of a second message did work out for both parties. Edit: my sister clarified that it was her that reinitialised contact by sending him a ‘smile’. He then messaged her again and told her that they’d talked before.
As part of my research for this post I googled ‘persistent male dating strategy’ and found some interesting results.
This Hooking Up Smart article framed and addressed the issue of general persistence well, the question asking:
> I hear so much about how women love to be pursued, but it seems the line between pursuit and stalking, and confidence and desperation, is very thin, with said line moving depending on the girl’s preferences.
As well as saying ‘It’s not one size fits all’, one of the cautionary answers given was:
>No woman wants to feel stalked by a desperate male.
This answer strikes at why this subject is worth thinking about. If this dynamic didn’t exist then one could just continue sending messages, and it wouldn’t really be a problem. Because not many men want women to feel uncomfortable around then, seconding that message requires more consideration. The article deals with persistence in a broader scope and is well worth a read, but let’s dial it back to just addressing second messages or date requests in face of either not receiving a reply, or getting a ‘I’m busy’ with no alternative suggested.
Let’s ask and answer why shouldn’t you send a second message?
- It’ll make them feel uncomfortable/be unpleasant for them.
- It’ll be counterproductive to your success – second a second message may make you look desperate, and thus less attractive.
- It’ll be unpleasant for you, if you face a second rejection.
When it’s framed like this the answer to whether you should send a second message in online dating question is pretty simple. There isn’t much harm in sending a second message. Someone isn’t going to be instantly creeped out if you send a second message, and so long as you’re pretty accepting that you might not get a reply, then there’s not much harm to yourself either.
For people you might have already talked to or just met, the answer is similarly casual – a second message isn’t going to do much harm, so long as it’s friendly and relaxed. A no-reply to the second message does more firmly indicate a conscious decision not to reply.
Unfortunately, the conclusions I have on this dynamic aren’t especially… conclusive. There’s no hard and fast rule I can suggest. Instead I would suggest that your response depends on how well you know the person.
If it’s someone you don’t know well, then as I’ve suggested, sending a second message isn’t unwarranted, but at the same time because you don’t know each other that well, I’d suggest taking a low cost approach to the second message (ie. Not getting to emotionally invested, don’t put a lot of consideration into the second message, and crafting a message such that you’re perfectly prepared to get no response).
For someone you know a bit better you can consider if perhaps they’re depressed, (‘Hey how are things going?’), or reevaluate the nature of your friendship according their response. Generally I would suggest that the longer/better you know someone, the more leeway you can give them before giving up completely.
On the other side of things – if you ever find yourself in a situation where you’ve forgotten to reply to someone’s message and you’re still interested in them – acknowledge it – ‘Hey sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier, how are you?’.
If you’re too busy to make a date but are still interested, then be the one to suggest the alternative.That’s a very proactive way to maintain and generate a friendship.