Why The Typing Awareness Indicator Is The Worst

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We’ve talked before about the awkwardness that is the typing awareness indicator — but just in case you needed proof that it sucks as a text and chat mechanism, the New York Times has you covered. It’s not just a nuisance; the typing awareness indicator actually induces anxiety in a lot of people.

I think I speak for all of us when I say, yikes.

Jessica Bennett recently wrote about the emotional weight we tend to attach to those little tiny ellipses that appear whenever we’re waiting for a response via text or chat — and also makes a good case for turning them off. As Paul Dourish, a University of California, Irvine professor who focuses on the intersection of technology and society, told Bennett, “The awareness indicator as implemented on the iPhone is a curious beast — it conveys that something is being done, but it won’t say what.” Since we don’t know what the other person is doing beyond typing, the typing awareness indicator prompts a lot of us to speculate wildly in order to fill in the gaps. It could mean, “Hang on a second, I’m responding”; it could mean, “I’m responding, but this might take a minute because I have a lot to say”; it could mean, “I’m ignoring you”; or any number of other things. The meaning also changes depending on how much time has elapsed with the indicator displayed versus the message that gets sent at the end of it. A lengthy pause with a typing indicator, followed by a one-word response… well, let’s just say that it’s not encouraging.

But there is a way out! You can escape the tyranny of the typing awareness indicator by turning the feature off on your phone. Of course, as is the case with many smartphone features, finding where the off switch is in the first place might be a little bit of a struggle; I had trouble locating it on my iPhone, but at least I learned that I have “read receipts” turned off. If those dots drive you up the wall, though, it’s probably worth it.

If you haven’t turned it off, though, don’t worry. I feel your pain. These situations in which the typing awareness indicator frequently shows up are the worst, aren’t they? Here, see if your thought processes during them are anything like mine are. We can wallow in their awfulness together. Maybe that'll make them not so bad. Or something.

1. Anything related to the phrase “Can we talk?”

It doesn’t matter where the ellipsis is located: After the initial question… in response to, “Um, sure, what about?”… wherever. Unless Nick Fury wants to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative, any conversation featuring both the phrase “Can we talk?” and a typing awareness indicator is never going to end well.

2. “I’m at the front of the line — what do you want me to get you?” “…”

You know the situation — it happens when you need to order food for someone, or you need to know whether to get them a movie ticket, or whatever. If you’ve been holding a spot in line for someone and they haven’t let you know how to proceed once you get to the front of it, you risk becoming That Jerk Who’s Holding Up the Line. And no one wants to be That Jerk.

3. “Are we still on for drinks tonight?” “…”

“Are they cancelling on me? If they don’t write back, should I still go? Am I risking getting stood up if I do that? But what if I don’t go, but they do, and it’s all a big misunderstanding because they accidentally forgot to hit ‘send’ when they were typing their response? That makes me the meanie pants person doing the standing up! Agh! So much anxiety!”

4. In response to a joke

“Was I not funny? Oh no — I’m not funny, even though I always thought I was! Or was my joke accidentally offensive? Am I not funny and offensive? OMG, I’m the worst!”

5. In the middle of sexting

“Uh oh. Did I just totally ruin the mood? I did, didn’t I? Blast. There goes my long-distance booty call for the night.”

6. “Are you OK?” “…”

To be fair, “Are you OK?” is generally not a great question to ask via text message under the best of circumstances. If something isn’t OK, it puts the other person in an awkward position without allowing them to fully explain what’s happening on their end (because let’s face it: There’s only so much you can say in a text message). It also makes you feel like hell, because all you get is “…”. So let’s all just agree not to do this, shall we?

7. “I’m here — where are you?” “…”

Somewhat related to “Are we still on for drinks tonight,” this one is usually deployed when meeting someone at a specific time and a specific location: “Are they still on the road? Are they underground on the subway? Are they ignoring me? Are they standing me up? If they’re standing me up, why couldn’t they have let me know before I left the house? Dammit. This sucks.”

8. “I love you!” “…”

“Do they not love me back? But we always say 'I love you!' and 'I love you too!' when signing off from a text conversation! Are they breaking up with me? They’re totally getting ready to break up with me, aren’t they? Where's my cat? I need to cuddle something.”