Trying to maintain the upper hand in a relationship is a losing game – as soon as you think there is an upper hand, haven’t you lost it? – but having the lower hand is clearly much worse. Slow hand? Sure. Low hand? No.
In so many small ways we attempt to keep relationships unequal in our favor. We don’t want to put in more effort than the people we date or give them inappropriately thoughtful gifts. We don’t want to plan all the outings, be the one to send that friend request, or call them more. We never, ever, ever want to say “I love you” first. But this sociosexual economy has long been invisible, these emotional transactions hard to quantify. Until now. Now we have the “gray ratio.”
Apple’s iMessage presents a stark visualization of relationship inequality. If your texting partner’s gray boxes do not appear more frequently than or equally to your blue ones – well, you’re losing out. Sorry.
That is what we mean by “gray ratio,” the proportion of messages in with messages out. A low gray ratio implies that you are over-texting or being too attached, too needy, or just too damn wordy.
Brooklyn-based Harriet (some names in this piece have been changed), 26, told us that a person who texts too much looks “overeager.” And this is, sadly, universally acknowledged as an unattractive quality. “I clearly don’t want to text with someone who wants to text me that much,” she says.
Worse yet, if a ratio is unbalanced, that texter may well appear – or be – unbalanced themselves. Claudia, 28, a copywriter in Portland, OR, recalls that one young man who sent her walls of words proved to be too much in real life as well. “A bunch of text messages was, in this case, one of a series of red flags that this guy had a serious lack of boundaries,” she says. “I wish I’d paid more attention to why it was bothering me that he sent so many texts.”
Despite being in a loving, long-term relationship, Harriet still worries about her ratio, admitting, “I’ll intentionally say things like ‘can meet after’ and leave off ‘I’ and punctuation so that it looks like I’m texting less.” Everyone we spoke to agrees that after two unanswered messages, it is time to stop communicating – even if something more needs to be said.
Cautiousness surrounding the Gray Ratio can cause unintended consequences: if both halves of a text exchange are attempting to keep the ratio in their favor with short or even one-word answers, this can lead to a communication deadlock. How many text-based courtships have petered out thanks to a mutual hesitance to be seen as desperate? We’ll never know. Tabitha, 28, says holding back from over-messaging has led her to more efficient, well-considered and direct communication, but she still wonders about a “great” guy to whom she rarely ever said more than “kay.” “In retrospect, he might have thought I was an idiot,” she says.
Dating someone who is demonstrative in real life but withholding via iPhone can create unnecessary insecurities. Ramona, a book editor in Manhattan, remembers that one ex-boyfriend infuriatingly “would often just not respond to something I sent,” Eventually, she says, she told him that it “makes me feel kind of pathetic and clingy when I see that I’ve sent you a lot of texts and you haven’t sent me any.” His textual behavior didn’t improve, and eventually their relationship ended.
Alternately, pressure to balance the Gray Ratio of an over-texter you’re interested in can be taxing. Ramona, says, “I do feel pressure to reply to texts from guys I like even if I don’t have anything to say.” This is a good way to end up with a significant other who vastly overestimates your interest in ‘90s hip-hop or college basketball, and it can create resentment. Tabitha recalls that she once let a dude blow her up about The Walking Dead for weeks, and when it eventually came to light that she had no idea who Carl was, her suitor felt betrayed. “I thought it would just be one or two texts – I’d seem cool and he’d forget all about it – but it went on for so long I started cribbing from the show’s Wikipedia page,” she says. Now, she laments, “It’s just so hard to change the subject via text!”
And the gray ratio invites judgment about more than just your text regularity, it courts scorn about the thing most of us hold nearest and dearest: your choice of device. As Pasquale D’Silva, a New York based creative director and inventor of the term, says, “I used to call it the Green to Gray ratio until iMessage came along. Now it’s the Blue to Gray ratio. If I see someone who sends me a green, I almost always feel grossed out that they are an Android dummy. I mean, who in their right mind would want to risk sending a regular green text message if you have iMessage? That’d be knocking yourself down a rung.” Even if you’re putting your best foot forward, if that foot is green you could be devaluing yourself.
With so many subtle ways to evaluate our prospective partners, the gray ratio is inarguable display of who is into whom. The only true answer is to throw your iPhone off a bridge and communicate exclusively by carrier pigeon. That makes you look way laid back.