The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our group texts are blowing up during the pandemic. And we’re taking the drama personally.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

When the pandemic hit, four far-flung friends who work in the same industry knew they wouldn’t see one another for a while, so they created a text chain to keep in touch. There were upbeat birthday messages, quirky Bitmojis featuring hot dogs and bacon, and inside jokes about Popsicles.

Then one person in the group lost his job and his relationship. Suddenly, the tone changed. It was all shock and sympathy for their newly single friend.

Another member of the group, a 37-year-old woman in Washington, D.C., felt strangely perturbed. (Most people in this story spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to create more group-text drama.) After all, she’s also single and recently unemployed. While she wished her friend well, the condolence messages read as if “two of the worst things that could happen to you are being unemployed and single,” she says. “Neither of those things are the end of the world.”

She didn’t voice that opinion. “I knew I was coming at it with a skewed perspective and the best response was not to respond,” she says. She sent her newly single friend words of encouragement, reminding him that he’s a great person and he’ll get through this. Then she bowed out of the group chat.

In this time of extreme isolation for some, stress and fear for many, the group chat can bring us together. Here’s an adorable pic of my new puppy! Or here’s vital information about your great-uncle’s health.

But just as often, the well-intentioned group chat goes off the rails, becoming a chaotic source of hurt feelings, annoyance, boredom, information overload and misplaced alarm. And so many. Strings of. Short lines of text. Ever heard. Of a full sentence?! Because many of us are so isolated and life seems stuck in slow motion, seemingly mild slights can land as massive affronts.

Especially when your chat is blowing up at all hours of the day and night. When 47 texts come through in five minutes, Billy, a 31-year-old in New York City, thinks there’s a family emergency brewing. “And then it’s a GIF of a baby farting,” he says. “I don’t need the anxiety, folks.”

The group text can also be an organizational nightmare. Alex Ambrose, a 28-year-old quarantining with her family in Annandale, N.J., has several group texts going at once — permutations with and without her dad, with and without her stepsiblings. Some of her chats are over Snapchat, others are over Facebook Messenger (a platform she tries to avoid). If she’s looking for a photo or an address someone sent, she’s often stumped. Ambrose says the setup is akin to “a filing cabinet with no labels that your drunken cousin came in and tried to file away all your forms.”

When Ambrose comes downstairs in the morning, often the first words out of her mom’s mouth are: Did you watch the video I sent you? Usually, she hasn’t. “Just because I’m not checking Facebook Messenger every single day doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in what you have to say,” Ambrose says. “It’s not personal.” But her mom seems to take it that way.

A 37-year-old woman in Melbourne has asked her parents not to send her and her husband off-color jokes and memes, but they won’t stop. She says their attitude is: “If you have a problem, that’s your problem.”

And no one respects time differences. Her parents are from Argentina and live in Britain, which is nine hours behind Australia. “When they’re at peak ‘Isn’t this funny?’ mode, my husband is working,” she says. The jokes and memes her parents send are all in Spanish, a language her husband doesn’t speak. A recent gem featured an image of a woman rummaging in the trunk of her car, looking for her cellphone, when it was really lodged in her, err, other trunk. “I think it annoys me more than it annoys him,” she says.

And she can’t take herself out of a group chat with her parents. “There’s a lot about this WhatsApp group that’s really special,” she says, as it “replaces email in a really convenient way,” allowing her to “have a constant conversation with my parents without talking to them. But it also produces a lot of pollution.”

The pandemic is making that pollution worse. “People are sending out lengthier texts than usual,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, an expert in business etiquette. As for sending texts when your recipients might be sleeping? “That’s just being inconsiderate,” Whitmore says. “That’s Etiquette 101.” Whitmore says there’s nothing wrong with setting parameters, such as letting your loved ones know the hours of the day you’re available. And for particularly chatty groups, silence your phone’s notifications and just catch up when you have time.

Whitmore also suggests steering clear of divisive conversation topics over group texts, such as the 2020 election. “If you’ve got one person who’s extreme on one end or another, you’re setting yourself up for a possible confrontation. If you’re okay with that, that’s okay,” she says. “But not everyone else is, so you’re not thinking of the good of the group.”

How to embrace the slower pace of a pandemic relationship

Many successful group chats, says Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of the upcoming book “Friendship in the Age of Loneliness,” have a clear purpose and intention — such as sharing recipes or family pictures. That way, if anything else gets posted, someone can call it out as a non sequitur.

For the conflict-averse, etiquette expert Lizzie Post says it’s just fine to opt out of group chats altogether. “Absolutely you can speak up and say: ‘I don’t like group messages,' ” Post says. “But recognize that that might make it a little harder for people to get in touch with you.”

Or ask a friend to be your liaison, as the 37-year-old Washingtonian did. She found an ally in the group to tell everyone else that she had a lot going on right now and to start a chain without her.

“It gave me the emotional space to get away from the fog and the constant chatter,” she says, adding that she’s made an effort to talk to everybody one-on-one instead.

She doesn’t fault her friends for her hurt feelings. Rather, she blames the pandemic. “All of the normal outlets and coping skills have been greatly reduced or eliminated. We don’t run into other people on the Metro, at work, going to the gym, or visiting with family. Our worlds became very small … our problems became much more outsized.”

A 32-year-old woman in Arlington, Va., sees the explosion in group chats as an attempt to fill the quiet that’s especially acute for solo quarantines. “A lot of us are used to being surrounded by people and office chatter. If you live in a one-bedroom by yourself, the chatter goes away, so you look for it in other places.” But just as you might get annoyed with your family when you spend all day with them, she says, “now you’re annoyed with your friends when you spend all day with them in text form.”

If a conversation goes on for an especially long time — during the pandemic, she notes, “every story is about 500 times longer than it needs to be!” — she will mute the chat and check back in an hour to see if everyone’s moved on. Then she’ll drop in a new link, maybe a funny tweet or an article to get conversation going on a different topic. “You have to let the right amount of time pass to interrupt with something else to not seem like a jerk,” she says.

Even as this woman complains about receiving boring text tangents, she admits: “I’m sure I’ve done the same thing as them."

This story has been updated.


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