Those Red Alert Bubbles on Your Phone Are Driving Your Loved One Crazy

Friday, May 25, 2018


Those Red Alert Bubbles on Your Phone Are Driving Your Loved One Crazy
By Katherine Bindley

Jon Ambrose was lying in bed playing a word game with his wife on her iPhone last winter when she left the room for a few minutes. After 12 years of marriage, the 33-year-old computer engineer got his first close look at her phone’s home screen.

What he saw shocked him: thousands of unread emails, 45 pending app store updates, a dozen-plus unchecked voice mails. The phone was “overflowing with ridiculousness,” says Mr. Ambrose, a religious pruner of both his inbox and his phone’s home screen.

After his wife fell asleep, he entered her passcode and spent about 20 minutes tapping and swiping to make all those little red bubbles go away.

“It was so satisfying when I saw those five thousand emails disappear,” he says. “I don’t even know how to describe it.”

In an era of nonstop notifications—reminders, app updates, endless text chains—electronic-alert management is starting to become a dividing line in American relationships. On one side are the compulsive clearers, who can’t abide the banners and bubbles designed to prod us into maximum smartphone hygiene. The clutter and the sense of tasks unfinished drives them to distraction.

On the other side are spouses and partners who are affected differently—which is to say not at all. Messages collect. Unread emails accumulate. Software upgrades are ignored. Apps requesting updates sit in a digital purgatory.

“I understand every couple of days you get some back up, no big deal,” says Mr. Ambrose of his wife’s phone. “This was four years’ worth of stuff.”

“I guarantee you it’s unimportant stuff,” Eve Ambrose, 35, says she told her husband at the time. She wasn’t bothered by the surreptitious phone-cleaning. She also points out that she never misses an email: “If it said 97 emails, I’m going to notice if it says 98.”

Mr. Ambrose now periodically goes into her phone to manage her notifications once she has nodded off.

Members of the laissez-faire contingent often point out that, however it looks, they have things under control.

“If it strikes my fancy, I’ll read it and if it doesn’t, I’ll swipe it off the screen,” says Graeme Farley, 35, of Cork, Ireland, who maintains an unread email count that his wife finds appalling. The couple got together about a decade ago before people were on their phones all the time.

“It wasn’t apparent when we first met each other that this would be a problem,” says Philipa Jane Farley, 36, a data-protection specialist. “I should have looked at the state of his car.”

Mrs. Farley says she lasted five minutes in her husband’s inbox while doing his taxes two years ago before she deleted 2,500 unread emails. Had there been anything important, it would be in the trash folder for 30 days before disappearing for good: “There was a safety net,” she says.

“I wasn’t fazed by it,” says Mr. Farley. Still, he says he’s planning to get better about keeping his inbox in better condition.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the drive,” says Ms. Kaier. “And he makes me listen to all my voice mails.”

Since her phone was connected to her car for the GPS, the couple listened to the messages over the car speakers.

Joe Cappelli, a 31-year-old accountant, says the sight of Ms. Kaier’s phone bothered him for the first few months they dated but he didn’t say anything immediately. When they stopped for gas and he saw her phone in the cupholder, he decided it was time.

“It took a couple of months after dating her before I realized I couldn’t handle seeing those numbers all the time,” he says. “I just took it upon myself to fix the issue.”

“I’m like, you have at it, that’s less for me to do,” says Ms. Kaier.

“I’m Felix and my husband is Oscar,” Ms. Long says, referring to characters in “The Odd Couple.” “I see his phone and his inbox says 1,368 emails there and I go, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

Still she doesn’t interfere—beyond turning his iPhone on its face so she doesn’t have to look at the number count.

J.D. Long, 45, who works in financial services, says his wife has never asked to delete his thousands of unread emails.

“My assumption is she doesn’t want a divorce,” says Mr. Long. “I assume that’s why she’s never asked that.”

“He has his own system and he understands it and I have my system and mine is correct,” Mrs. Long says.

Candace Hernandez, 34, of Fort Worth, Texas, says the annoying thing about her husband’s disgust with the state of her phone is that it’s inconsistent with his feelings toward other types of clutter.

“You’ve got a stack of mail sitting on the counter and that’s OK but one notification on your phone that you have an email is a problem?” she says. “Explain that to me.”

Mrs. Hernandez lets her husband clear all her notifications and update her settings, but he is to go nowhere near her email (she says unread emails are reminders of what she needs to read, or deal with).

Mike Hernandez, 33, a developer for an IT company, says unread emails and notifications make him uncomfortable.

For the most part, their different styles don’t cause problems, except last week, when they pulled up to a friend’s party and no one was there.

“The location got changed,” says Mr. Hernandez.

The updated address was sitting in an unread group text on his wife’s phone.

“That one got me,” she says.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on May 25, 2018.

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