Back in the frontier days and before, correspondents could expect a bare minimum of weeks or months for a reply from a distant family member, if the letter or its response even made it through the mail.  Now, with email, chat and cel phones it’s been reduced to minutes.  Unfortunately this expectation doesn’t factor in one key ingredient: Availability.

All this accessibility brings about the illusion of constant availability.  Just because one is accessible doesn’t mean one is available to communicate.

Let’s take, for example, my dear mother.  Where to begin?  The phone calls are bad enough.  There’s never just one.  It’s like skipping a stone.  First one big one, then a followup with something she forgot, and then a few more short followups.  Add email into the equation and it gets worse.  She still occasionally will call multiple different phone numbers to advise me that she sent me an email.  And recently she called my house and cel phone for a combined total of ten times in less than four hours regarding travel plans I was trying to make.  Granted, one of those calls was to apologize to my wife for browbeating her for my failure to return her calls.  This failure was simply this: I was busy.  I couldn’t talk on the phone.

Chat and SMS text messaging tighten this illusory loop even further. How many times have you come back from brief distraction to see, in a chat window, “Hello?  Did I lose you?”  Now granted the channel is pretty narrow.  There’s no way to know if the person on the other end is too steamed or bored to respond, or if they’re simply distracted.  In a medium where the time interval between responses is an important indicator of meaning (go ahead, read back over a heavy chat transcript.  It loses a lot without the punctuating pregnant pauses, doesn’t it?), ny delays are easy to misinterpret, like in those cel phone ads where the call is dropped at a very inopportune time, causing hilarious misinterpretations.

This illusion of availability, a side effect of society’s obsessive drive to improve communication, has resulted in no small aggravation on the part of either correspondent, albeit for different reasons.  Radio silence is not a reliable indicator of meaning or respect.  And just because I am accessible doesn’t mean I can talk!