Connectivity, Instant Messaging, and Taking My Time

As a modern citizen of the world, I’m used to being constantly connected to something. Be it various social media platforms, a media streaming site, or just a collection of friends via whatever chat app is currently the cool place to hang out, I always have some kind of mental space devoted to providing access to myself at short notice. As I’ve gone from a student to an employee, a teenager to an adult, my relationship with allowing other people access to me has changed, but it hasn’t disappeared. If anything, it has grown stronger, especially in these pandemic years of mostly digital connections to the people I care about. While I’m a bit undecided about whether that level of access is good or bad (which, to be honest, probably just depends on the context), the way I think and feel about it has changed pretty significantly in my work and personal lives.

I’ve always maintained a policy of not being reachable for work stuff after hours. I’ve maintained that my entire adult life and reinforced it in iron during the pandemic, when I finally had to break my old rules about not installing work email or contact applications on my cell phone. My initial stance was that if my employer wanted me to be reachable outside of business hours, they’d have to buy me a cell phone and pay me a lot more. As I worked from home almost exclusively during the first year of the pandemic, I wound up relenting on that so I could work away from my desktop computer. Being able to sit on my porch or go for a walk during meetings I wasn’t going to need to talk during was one of my only ways to break the monotony of my work weeks. Now that I’m only occasionally working from home, I’ve removed the email apps and install or uninstall the chat applications my team uses based on whether or not I’m working from home. Thankfully, they’ve all added the ability to turn off notifications based on the time of day, so I was able to essentially make myself unreachable once I’d punched out, then and now, so has been pretty easy to maintain my desired inaccessibility when I’m off the clock.

Most of my coworkers have my cell phone number in case an emergency comes up during my off hours, but in more than five years of working for my current employer, I’ve never once been contacted about work stuff via my cell phone during hours I wasn’t on the clock (or late for clocking in, I suppose). These days though, as the pandemic drags on and I increasingly find myself at odds with my employer and coworkers about what kind of risks we find acceptable, I find myself making the lines between my work life and my personal life more concrete. It isn’t that I’m unwilling to answer a call for assistance if something horrible happens and everyone needs to pitch in to address it (I get overtime pay and would absolutely be able to clock in immediately if I’m called on in this way), it’s just that I’m less willing to do it for anything other than a genuine, verifiable emergency. I feel a lot less inclined to act based on someone else’s sense of urgency given how much I’ve learned about what people consider urgent and how willing people are to respond to my own requests for urgent assistance.

In my personal life, pretty much the opposite is true. I’m more connected than ever, even if the ways I’m connected are different and the list of people I’m connected to is smaller. The only real similarity between the work and personal communication is that I like being able to choose whether or not I respond quickly. Sometimes, I like to just swipe away notifications on my phone or to read the message and not respond. Not because I always need time to consider how to respond (though I do this frequently for this exact reason), but because sometimes I’m in the middle of something else and don’t want to shift my focus immediately. Or because I’ve broken the expectation in my own head that the availability of digital communication is proportional to its urgency. I tend to respond the same day and usually interact much more quickly if there’s a on-going conversation happening, but sometimes a message is just a message and you can respond to it when you’ve got time.

I don’t know why I used to think that instant message services required tending like something you’re cooking on the stove. Maybe because it felt like it had the immediacy of talking to someone’s face or because we used to just call them “Instant Messages” which heavily implied if you got a message instantly, you also had to respond instantly. Regardless, I don’t feel like anyone owes me an instant response if I send them a message or that I owe anyone else an instant response. Nothing wrong with letting a little time pass, most of the time, and it’s usually pretty clear when letting time pass would actually be harmful, so it’s an easy decision to make.

That said, I’m trying to be open to talking to a wider range of people online. Develop new contacts and all that, since I’m really feeling like my social circles have shrunk enormously in recent years. Which has mostly meant being connected to more and more platforms and social spaces online rather than faster responses or more overall communication. I tend to lurk in my social spaces most of the time since I rarely feel like I have much to say anywhere other than this blog. Which I’m sure is amusing to people who follow this blog since I update it six times a week and never seem to run out of stuff to write about. It’s a complex mental space and I’m trying to respect my own feelings on the matter while still pushing myself to try new things. We’ll see how it goes eventually.

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