The Cult of iPhone Read Receipts is Real and Terrifying

My friend’s younger brother selectively turns his read receipts on and off depending on the conversation.

I had never heard of someone doing that before. I demanded more information.

“Double texters are the worst,” he said. “You know: people who shoot you a question mark or something if you haven’t replied for awhile. Throwing on read receipts sends a strong message that you’ve read what they have to say and have no response. It prevents them from feeling the need to send an annoying follow-up text to ask if you’ve seen their last message, because the read receipt shows them you clearly have. It’s a major power move.”

I was fascinated, mostly because I have never, not once, considered turning on read receipts myself. Just the thought of it gives me anxiety. Turning on read receipts would make me feel like walking outside without pants on: exposed. When I don’t want to respond to a text for whatever reason (laziness, avoidance, etc.), I take comfort in the fact that the sender of said text has no idea whether or not I’ve actually read it. I could be ignoring him OR I could be lying in a ditch on the side of the road with a dead phone battery. It’s delightfully murky territory.

The anti-read receipts sentiment seems to be commonly held, at least within my social circles. None of my close friends or family members leave their read receipts on, which leads me to believe that the people who do are a relatively rare breed. Since Man Repeller is in the business of investigating such niche communities of the human species (see: year-round iced coffee drinkers), I decided a read receipt exposé was in order.

When I announced this intention during the editorial team’s weekly meeting, I learned that a real-live read receipt advocate dwelled among us: Leandra Medine Cohen. “People always remind me I can turn them off as if I don’t know, but I deliberately keep them on,” she told me.

When I asked her why, she said, “For a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it doesn’t allow me to be anything but transparent when I am both answering and not answering messages. Maybe this makes me an asshole, but sometimes I think it’s important that people, like my mom, for example, know I have read their messages and have proactively chosen to remain silent. And when that’s not the case (i.e. when I’m not just being a dick), knowing the receipts are on prevents me from answering at leisure and promotes a sense of urgency, without which I would err on the side of lazy procrastinator.”

Huh. So essentially her choice to use read receipts is twofold: It sends a clear message in specific situations when she is choosing not to respond and, more generally, it serves as a personal motivator.

Eager to delve further into the psyche of this rare species, I contacted two other people (friends of friends) who were known supporters of read receipt culture. One of them, a woman named Caitlin, told me, “I’m a huge proponent of read receipts. If I’m not responding, I’m not being rude, I’m just busy.

When I asked her why she likes them so much, especially given that most people don’t leave them on, she said, “I used to not use them, but I would always find myself opening a text and forgetting to answer. And I guess from a broader perspective, life would be so much easier if everyone had receipts. For example, let’s say you were texting a guy and he hasn’t responded to your last text. If he had read receipts and they indicated that he already read it and was choosing not to respond, you would get the message. But if he doesn’t have read receipts (which is more common), you would make up all these excuses about how he must have a big project at work or he’s on a seven-hour flight to Japan and that’s why he wasn’t responding. Read receipts leave less up for interpretation. They eliminate the B.S.”

The other person I talked to was a guy named Bruce, a friend of my sister’s. “I like read receipts and find them to be helpful,” he wrote to me over text. “I can see how a ‘read, no response’ might be negatively interpreted, but 99% of the time I’m not being rude…it just wasn’t necessary for me to respond. Not to sound like Larry David, but, not all conversations need to continue.”

I texted back, “How do you find them ‘helpful’?”

He read it and didn’t respond.

Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi. 

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

More from Archive