I looked through the archives and I couldn’t see anything on this particular topic, but apologies if I missed something. It does seem connected to the Geek Social Fallacies though.
My question is about how to deal with awkwardness and anxieties over the dreaded Group Chat.
I have a group of friends who are not particularly close but they are friends I see a few times a year. I am pleased that they want to be my friend. We live in the same city. Over the past year, however, there have been some issues around differing expectations over the Group WhatsApp Chat.
Basically–there is a Group Chat. Actually now there are FOUR Group Chats. There are seven of us in it, all from this friendship group. The other six people use the chats constantly throughout the day to update each other on their movements and what they are doing. There used to be one chat but because of the high volume of chat traffic they split it into four: General Chat, TV (what people are watching), Logistics (about them meeting up), and Rants and Raves (where you can complain about stuff that happened to you). There is now a high volume of chat on all four groups.
The issue is that I can’t keep up with the chats. I am a remote worker and so I am in Slack groups for my work. Apart from that I don’t like chatting online in group chats, especially not with people who live in the same city as me, as I prefer to catch up in person and have an offline chat with them even if it is not frequent. I find that more social. The expectations of this group around the chats are very high. They literally update it with their movements, like “I’m having a coffee now” or “Just popped out for some milk”, or “omg I sat next to a smelly person on the bus just now, eww” and “just cooked some sausages”, this goes on all day. They post photos of these activities too and if they go on vacation, the chat gets filled with many, many vacation photos and videos that they get upset if I don’t look at or watch and then comment on. The TV and Rants chats are also very busy where they say “Just put on the TV, surfing the channels now” or go into more details ranting about the smelly person on the bus and so on. Basically they are narrating their lives in the chats, I don’t enjoy doing that and I don’t like reading it either…does that make me antisocial?
However the other six Chatters are upset that I do not participate in the chats. One guy literally told me that he did not understand what I did all day (I’m working..also why does he care??). We recently all met up in person and when they complained that I do not talk on the chats I tried to explain that I prefer to catch up in person with people rather than say everything online since then when we meet we have nothing to say because we already typed it… online… And they were offended by this, they seemed to take it as a personal rejection. It isn’t! I like catching up with them over a coffee or beer and finding out what’s new, it’s nicer in person. During the meetup they literally all sat on their phones chatting about the meetup on the group chat even though they were all there, apart from one person. They took photos of each other and posted them to the chat… When I asked them what they had been up to recently, they said that “if I had read the chat, I would know…”
I don’t get it.
I have muted the chats because otherwise my phone was pinging every couple of minutes. At the end of the day when I look at the chats there are a few hundred messages that I didn’t read. I feel overwhelmed just looking at it so I don’t read them usually and if I do all I learn is that someone went out for milk and there was no semi skimmed in the store. After the MeetUp where they suggested that they were offended and hurt that I didn’t talk on the chat I tried to join in by saying hi in the chat and asking what people were up to, but they were upset with me there, saying “wow nice of you to drop in”. So I gave up. I’m not ignoring them or shunning them, I just don’t want to type on my phone all day about what I am doing…
What can I tell them? I don’t want to offend anyone, and if I quit the chats they will not tell me when they are meeting up, so I will not see them again. I am an introvert who however enjoys group interactions (as long as I can be alone afterwards to decompress) so it’s not that. I just don’t get this group chat thing. Any ideas for how to tell them nicely without losing friends?
Whats Up With WhatsApp
Friend groups can become cultures unto themselves, and the culture of this one is to be constantly connected in a low-intensity way with social media. It’s not right or wrong – your “Ugh, too much!” is their “This is my little daily anchor for feeling less lonely in the world” and both reactions are just as honest and just as true. I think the less we make value judgments or appeal to “Manners!” and the more we cast this as a difference in style and/or compatibility, the more helpful I can be. One form of communication isn’t necessarily more genuine or deeper than any other, so what we’re dealing with is 1) their strong preference vs. yours 2) whether there’s a way to make these preferences more compatible 3) whether the affection between you is strong enough to make it worth the effort to try.
Example time! Imagine you’re out in a restaurant at breakfast time, and you see a family on vacation, and everyone is on their screens during the meal. It’s easy to think “Such disconnection, why can’t they just talk to each other like people used to do?” but I look at it and think, hey, look, they are all reading and nobody is yelling at anybody, how relaxing, I wish I’d been able to read at the table sometimes when I was a kid. We’re only seeing one snapshot, not the whole of this family’s communications with each other, maybe mealtime screen-time is a vacation-only treat, maybe their family’s first language is “judgmental screaming” and “quiet disconnection” is a serious upgrade, not all faaaaaaamily mealtime conversation is good or desirable or automatically more polite.
A second example: Recently I got to hang out with a friend I’d seen in person maybe once in probably 20 years. We went to school together in the 1990s, worked at two of the same places, lived a few doors down from each other in the same apartment building, had “Family Dinner” every Sunday night, met each other’s families, and it’s not an exaggeration to say we we talked close to every day between 1997 and 2000. Then I moved away and I didn’t see him again until last week. If you need proof of true friendship, he once moved most of my belongings into an un-air-conditioned 4th floor walkup on a 100 degree day. But what made our friendship work was hugely, hugely based on proximity: “You are a person I like to do a lot of nothing with, and hey look, you’re right here, let’s hang out!” When it was easy to hang out, we did, all the time. When it was hard due to geography, we didn’t. It doesn’t mean we’re not friends, it just means that friendship fits into a particular shape, and “pen pal” isn’t that shape. That dynamic might not work for everyone (or even anyone) else, and that’s okay. The WhatsApp dynamic might be a way these folks maintain that feeling of proximity, whereas the LW prefers physical proximity, and they live in the same town so why not go with that? How does proximity affect our friendships is a useful question, I think, for lots of Geek Social Fallacies-adjacent and “Why am I friends with this person again?” questions in addition to today’s post.
Another possibly more relevant example: My experience with this “how can you not know when we share everything with each other online?” dynamic dates back to the days of LiveJournal, where I had a post go ridiculously viral and I ended up putting something in my profile to the tune of “‘I like ______’ and ‘I want to read ______’s every waking thought (and show them all of mine)’ are not the same thing at all” and then I pruned my friends’ list to people I was actually actively reading and engaging with and unfriended/refused literally everyone else. Some people I knew locally found this really confusing and painful to parse, like, “If you like me, why don’t you like me all the time, in every possible medium, as much as possible?” and the answer was (and still is) “I don’t knowwwwwwwwwwwwww, but I know that it’s true of me. I read as way more extroverted than I actually am, I have a bigger ‘friendliness’ footprint than I have attention units and that’s just how it is.”
Previously I’d tried using filters for both what I posted and what I read, since there were people I liked in meatspace but didn’t want to interact with much online (and you better believe there was both a vice and a versa with that one), and there were people all over the world I made forever-kindred-spirit-friendships with just ’cause we read each other’s internet diaries, and lots and lots and lots of in-between.
Sadly, the thing your friends identify as a problem was actually a problem when it came to people I knew both online and locally in Chicago: By using filters and limiting my reading, I wasn’t keeping up with people’s lives in the way they assumed I was, and that definitely had repercussions in my local social scene. It really only takes saying “You must be so excited about the baaaaaaaaaaaby!” (because that was a detail I sort of remembered about a nice-but-not-necessarily-close-person in the brunch circle) once and hearing “Don’t you fucking read?” hissed by someone else into the horrified, echoing silence after the sadly-not-pregnant-anymore person fled the restaurant weeping, to learn some important lessons:
- Pregnant people will tell you if there is anything new to tell, if they don’t mention it, STFU, nope, shut up, always be shutting up.
- I, Jennifer, should not try to half-ass stuff out of social obligation that I cannot keep up with from the heart, it will only end in tears and 17+ years of shame-echoes.
- If this online-offline hybrid social life we’ve made has any hope of working, I need to know my limits and stay inside them.
Now we have the excuse of both privacy filters and the algorithms* straight-up not showing us certain people’s stuff when we do want to follow their lives, but the problem remains the same: With so many apps and points of contact to share and absorb a constant stream of everybody’s thoughts and doings, how do we keep up with what’s actually important? And where/how do we set the expectations? And how do we account for the fact that what goes on social media is necessarily an edited & curated version of people’s life events, so the most important stuff might not be visible? Everybody is navigating this a little bit differently and there is no one right way.
(*I’ve lost count of what example we’re on but in the last year I’ve completely missed at least one friend’s divorce and another’s life-threatening accident – and these are people I avidly follow on social media but don’t see face to face often or talk on the phone with. If not for in-person catch-ups and asking questions, I would literally never have known what was going on. Information does not equal knowledge part the millionth.)
As a person who does a lot of her living inside the internet, it’s helped me to assume that possibly nobody knows anything about me until I actually tell specifically them what’s going on. I might Tweet or blog here about a thing, but that doesn’t mean my friends who aren’t Extremely Online saw it or know about it or care about it, so if I want them to know I tell them. If that means repeating myself, oh well, they’ll interrupt me and it will be fine. If I haven’t seen you in a while, I will ask you questions in that vein, like, “You’ve probably told Facebook or Twitter all about what’s new lately but I miss a lot of things, would you mind giving me the friend-recap, I’d love to hear all about everything!?!”
Again, not everyone is me or thinks like me or needs what I need, so I’m not saying that this should be the standard for others, it’s not “what you should do” it’s “what I am actually doing, maybe that will help somebody?” For me, social media interactions are real interactions, internet friends are real friends, but not everyone switches between modes of communication with the same speed and enthusiasm as me, so I am happier in face-to-face interactions when I assume nothing and default to asking (and telling). So that might be a script for you – “I’m sure you’ve posted all this in the group chat, but please tell me again! I want to know! Thank you!”
All this to say, I can see why your friends are like “But I put literally everything about me in the chats, if you really wanted to know what’s going on with me you would know“ and you are like “Ok but there were 12,000 updates about breakfast cereal and which episode of Inspector Lewis you’re watching, so forgive me if your life-changing promotion was a blip, if you really wanted me to know you’d tell me when I asked you what’s new and not lecture me about keeping up with the chats when I’ve already told you that I can’t.”
[To harken back to Ye Olden Times On The Internets and show you how little has changed: I have been u! “Hello Granddaughter, I forward jokes, un-fact-checked stories, MP3s of songs it takes four hours to download, and crackpot racism from the Rancid Old Man Internet to everyone I know and all our members of Congress to keep in touch Fwd: fwd: FWD: fwd:” vs. “Okay Grampa, but look, unless you’re emailing specifically me to tell me something that you wrote, I might not write back.” vs. “Well then I guess I just won’t BOTHER you anymore.” vs. “I mean, you can always call me but actually if you don’t forward random emails anymore that would be great, thanks!” vs. “Fwd:Fwd:FWD:Fwd: How DEMOCRATS are like VioLEnt TerrORist ABortioN GANGS the REAl story The MEDIA won’t TELL you FWD:FWD:FWD:fwd:>>>>>>>>>>fwd…. Love, Grampa Oscar”].
It’s okay to have different preferences. And I make fun, but being mutually dismissive of each other’s preferred communication styles will not help people who like each other actually hang out and remain friends. We can all say WTF? at the guy saying ‘he doesn’t understand what you do all day’ (WORKING AND NOT DOCUMENTING THE OL’ MORNING POTTY BREAK ON THE OL’ WHATSAPP, THAT’S WHAT, KEVIN, MAYBE TRY IT?), but you saying “Ugh, I don’t really get it” or calling their affectionate way of being with each other “from hell” won’t fix it either. Trading “If you really wanted to ______, you would DO _______” never goes anywhere good. So how do we break this impasse?
I don’t think you are going to be able to change the overall culture of the group, so let’s talk about what you can do to preserve these friendships.
One option is to continue as you are. Pop into the chats only when you feel like it, focus on the “Logistics” channel to see if there are any hangouts coming up, before you hang out in person maybe do a quick skim of the past day or two’s updates so you can ask topical questions. You will miss some things that are going on with these people and it’s okay to be honest about that – “I like you so much but I will never, ever be able to stay on top of the chats, so can I get a quick recap?” This is a way to recognize that you are dealing with a culture that isn’t your natural medium and you are doing your best to meet them where they are. If they can’t accept that? Then maybe they are incompatible with you and that’s sad but it’s good information to have. As you meet and befriend new people, you can prioritize closer ties with people who share the kind of communication style that makes you most happy and comfortable. For best results, cast it as your own preference, like “I know it makes me an outlier, but the group chat is just really not my thing, however, YOU are my thing, so, hang out on Friday?”
I think you’ve been very clear that you find the chats overwhelming and prefer to catch up in person, and there’s nothing stopping you from periodically calling or meeting up with these folks one on one or arranging your own outings, right? So another option is to uninstall WhatsApp from your phone, call or email or text or use whatever other form of communication you have to get in touch with one person in the group – your favorite person, the friendliest person – and say, “Hey friend, I’ve tried but I can’t keep up with the Group Chats and I don’t want to argue about them ever again. I like you so much, I like everyone in the group so much, and I hope you’ll let me know when you all get together next so we can catch up face to face, but if there’s something you want me to know about or come to for sure, here’s my #.”
If you do this will there be shock, surprise, hurt feelings? Will they talk about you behind your back? Will the friendships drift? Yes. 100%. But nothing will drift that isn’t already drifting. What you are doing is removing the fiction that you are ever going to participate in these chats again or keep up with every coffee break or bus ride with these people.
Which brings me to Part 2:
Whether you stay casually engaged with the chats or decide to go cold turkey, if you want to maintain these friendships, you’ll need to get in touch with folks – individually and as a group – and invite them to do things with you. You’re opting out of the way they do things and you’re the one who wants a change, therefore the initial work falls to you.
Whenever there is a group dynamic that’s iffy, I really encourage people to stop engaging with The Whole Group as a monolith and start engaging with people in ones and twos. Sometimes we outgrow friendships, sometimes we outgrow friend groups, but sometimes there are relationships worth preserving even if the idea of the group fades, and sometimes there is necessary pruning to be done.
Inviting people out means taking on some work that The Group used to handle for you on its own, but it also means letting your own pleasure and enjoyment guide you and learning more about how you like to do friendship. If you host events like, “dinner and movies at my place, and hey, this is just my quirk, but let’s put our phones away for a couple of hours,” who shows up, who makes you feel good, who gives you what you need, who is willing to try it your way some of the time? Once you start initiating plans suit you, you can see who likes you enough to meet you halfway, and from there you can see what can be saved and what can be built.
Before people comment I want to reiterate: If a social media platform or way of staying in touch with people makes you feel dread, don’t do it. DON’T USE IT. Delete it. Nobody is making you, so…don’t? Use the tools that you enjoy using, and make case-by-case exceptions when affection and connection truly compel you, like, “okay, the only way to interact with this person I REALLY want to interact with is phone talking so for that one person I am a grudging phone talker, everyone else is text only.” Our preferences are just that, preferences, and we’re all making compromises all the time. “I prefer in-person hangouts, texts are just impersonal!” vs. “Well I’m disabled so good fucking luck with that” IS A THING, it might be an insurmountable thing for two particular people, but it is a real thing and pretending that there is only one best way to interact is doomed. The Letter Writer’s friend group is doing a thing they enjoy that works for them. It doesn’t work for the Letter Writer. That’s okay, good news is we can find that we are incompatible with other people without anyone being a jerk, this ain’t Reddit, this site doesn’t exist to archive rants or tabulate votes that apportion blame correctly. Cool? Cool.
What I do want to hear from readers about: When you & somebody you care about have vastly different preferences about how to communicate, what works to keep you connected? And how did you figure it out?