Tell The History Of Now
The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University community since 1890

HARRINGTON: The case for read receipts

Our phones should automatically notify others when we’ve read their messages

Amidst College GameDay, Boy’s Bid Day, the Duke game, Boy’s Bid Night and Super Bowl Sunday, umpteen text messages sent to University students last weekend did not receive immediate replies. While this lack of response is entirely defensible, for coordinating plans with friends it would have been useful to know whether their content had been viewed. For iPhone owners, enabling read receipts allows their friends to see exactly that. However, the University faces a rampant read receipt opt-out culture, which I fear indicates a greater reluctance to reveal the truth.

To turn on your read receipts, you must be willing for others to always know whether and when you read their texts. This can feel violating for a medium that is typically characterized by ambiguity about the time, your location and your current activity when you open a text. In reality, read receipts make you feel vulnerable by enforcing honesty: they hinder your ability to resort to a “butler lie.” “Butler lies” are a linguistic strategy unique to digital communication whereby you exploit the medium’s ambiguities to avoid interaction or account for a failure to communicate. They are the strategic “Sorry I just got your text,” “I’m at the library” and “I actually already got dinner” excuses you send to justify a lack of response and to apologize for rejecting an invitation. A 2010 Cornell University study found 10.7 percent of student text messages to be deceptive, of which 30 percent were butler lies.

Butler lies are a deceitful reaction to the problem of availability management created by cell phones. Whereas it previously required effort to coordinate communication, our constant virtual co-presence today begets a perceived availability that can be overwhelming and distracting. When feeling guilty for violating some perceived obligation to respond, people forget their greater duty to tell the truth. Having read receipts off allows greater leeway to tell lies when they could be socially useful. Yet these lies are unjustified. You are lying in an attempt to seem polite, not to be polite; in an attempt to respect the other person, not to legitimately value him and demonstrate your friendship.

I fear butler lies encourage a casual relationship with dishonesty, paving our way towards greater, more consequential lying — the “significant” lies the Honor Committee cares about, according to the criteria of “Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?” As a community is built on individual relationships, it is unsettling that University students seek to hide their message-viewing history from their friends but reveal true emotions anonymously on Yik Yak. Although it is easier to lie to someone who is not physically present, butler lies are not benign to type: a 2013 study showed the sender feels worse about the lie than the recipient who detects it. While butler lies may seem less dire than stealing an honor umbrella, texting such falsehoods despite one’s feeling of discomfort should still be recognized as incongruent with our greater ideals.

The utility of read receipts demonstrates the truth is often useful. When a 10 p.m. text is left unread, the sender can concede you are asleep and will not be going out tonight. If you’ve read a roommate’s “lost my key, leave the door unlocked” text, she knows you’re aware of the situation. A read receipt on a “be here by seven” text indicates you’re working on getting there, rather than wasting time with a reply. While many professionals are expected to be constantly reachable by cell phone, the work of a student is often conducive to periods of technological unavailability. Letting your friends know their texts remain unread allows you to politely step “out of office” on your social life. It frees you to get caught up in your reading, focus on the game, lose your phone, have an all-consuming conversation or ignore all texts under the weight of a deadline.

In a world where butler lies are taboo and read receipts universal, we would also be constantly reminded of another type of veracity: the truth we are imperfect. The explanations for a reply sent hours after the read receipt would lay bare our true motivations: feeling temporarily antisocial, uncertainty of what to send, choosing not to commit in hopes another opportunity may arise, interpreting the message as not requiring a response or mere forgetfulness. While these rationales may not seem socially acceptable, they’re truthful and that’s what’s important. Admitting them is how we build trust between individuals, and hopefully among our greater community of trust.

Elaine Harrington is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at