We All Suck at Group Texting

With emotions running high and messages easily misinterpreted, here’s how to keep the thread from getting awkward

A young woman bites her fingernail while using her phone at home at night
Photo: Images By Tang Ming Tung/DigitalVision/Getty Images

InIn one of her ongoing group texts, Amanda has been participating in what’s become the pandemic version of small talk: She shared an update of how her family was holding up against the spread of coronavirus. Her dad, in Texas, was still going into the office every day. Her sister had gone ahead with a planned gender-reveal party. Her mom was on lockdown in the hospital and couldn’t have visitors.

“You could hear the crickets,” says Amanda, 41 (she requested that her last name be withheld for privacy). Holed up in her home in Los Angeles, she waited for her friends to reply. And then, after an initial silence, the comments came flooding in: “How could my sister be so selfish? How could [my dad] still go to work?” Someone shared a link to an article about Patient 31, who was at the center of an outbreak in South Korea. No one mentioned anything about Amanda’s mother, though two friends later texted her privately to check in. She’d wanted a chance to commiserate; instead, she felt attacked.

The experience, Amanda says, changed the way she approached the group chat, which she’d previously used to freely share her thoughts with a collection of friends. “After my comment about my mom, I realized that I do need to filter myself a bit,” she explains. “Even during a pandemic, I feel like I have to fake everything a bit.”

As a quick scroll through Twitter can tell you, there are plenty of similar stories out there right now of group texts gone awry. As we practice social distancing from the safety of our homes, the group chat is now the most easily accessible form of group interaction. As a result, it’s taken on new importance in our lives — and become newly fraught. Here’s how to turn around a thread that’s heading down a bad path.

Assume the best about each text (even the terrible ones)

“Humans are built for connection, and our language is as well,” says Olivia Hirschey Marrese, a linguistics researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I’d reached out to ask her how we can be better texters right now when everyone is tightly wound and everything we say feels especially loaded. “So, when we inevitably get frustrated or run into roadblocks communicating online, it’s important that we not blame ourselves, but rather assess what needs to be said, and who needs to hear it.”

Part of the problem is that texts have always been ambiguous. Because the words that pop up on the screen are divorced from tone or facial expression (except emojis, which come with their own problems), it can be challenging — and frustrating — to try to gauge where someone is coming from.

And it’s really hard to read the room when emotions are running high. Well-intended texts can become conversational grenades. The person cheerily dropping in pictures of their homemade bread comes off way too sunny, but might be using their newfound baking hobby as a coping mechanism to keep from spiraling. Meanwhile, your friend who can’t seem to talk about anything but contagion might be manifesting stress in a different way.

Shae, 31, from New York, said that the mood of her own three group texts changes daily or even hourly. “You can see how everyone is feeling, and that mood is often contagious,” she says.

Before, she and her friends used them mostly for discussing weekend plans or sharing goofy memes. Now, she says, “they have basically become 24/7 conversations about everything,” from the latest news to how everyone is holding up in isolation. “For at least one of us at least once every day, the text group is a much-needed place to talk for the sake of talking.”

Kristy Goodwin, a digital well-being and productivity researcher, says that right now, one of the best ways to minimize misunderstandings may be to assume that everyone, to varying degrees, is coming from a place of anxiety. “Understand that your family or friends may also be feeling stressed or anxious and so their responses and their messages need to be viewed through this lens,” she says.

Schedule no-texting time

Right now, we’re operating in anxiety mode, and it’s making us a little more irrational than we would be in normal times. Goodwin explains that when we’re stressed, the amygdala, the emotional hub of the brain, hijacks the prefrontal cortex, which helps with logical thinking.

If you’ve recently felt like snapping at your friend who won’t stop sending cute pictures of their dog, that might be why. So limit texting and emailing at night, when the amygdala fires up, and first thing in the morning, when you can activate your limbic system (or, she says, our “primitive threat alert system”) by filling up on upsetting news stories and social media posts. “This activates the fight, flight, or flee response,” Goodwin explains, “and it can be detrimental to your mood, as it sends a distress signal to your brain.”

Instead, Goodwin suggests “batching” your messages — or replying to things at set times of day — and pausing before you hit send. “Turn your phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode when you’re feeling overwhelmed,” she says. Maybe pick a time of the day when you know you’ll need a mental break from work, and use that time to catch up on everything you’ve missed on your phone. Or do the reverse: Pick a chunk of time when you know you don’t want to be pulled into anything, and leave your phone in the other room.

Shae has adopted a similar strategy, recently instituting an hour of no-phone time each day (something she shared with her friend chats to help manage expectations). Taking breaks, she says, has helped her be a part of the conversation without feeling overwhelmed: “I actually feel closer to my friends now than I did before,” she says.

Talk with each other, not at each other

It sounds silly, but if you’re worried about how a text could be misinterpreted, try reading it out loud before sending — hearing your words can help you make sure they actually convey what you mean. “Intentionality is important, especially as we can all get overwhelmed with an onslaught of news and information,” says Marrese. Joking about “the end of the world” in person, with an eye roll and smile, could read very differently in text right now, when people are losing their jobs and facing down uncertain futures.

“Though this situation is unprecedented globally, we still have all of our same linguistic tools to talk to each other,” Marrese adds. “How we use them will hopefully be a source of shared commitment to each other.”

Elly, a 25-year-old living in Brooklyn, says that she’s watched her group chats struggle to find the balance between two goals: on the one hand, giving people a space to air their fears, and on the other, steering the conversation toward more calming or distracting topics. “All of us are traumatized, triggered, or at the very least extremely worried and anxious about a lot of things going on,” she says.

But even through the awkward or frustrating moments, she says, having those ongoing conversations has been a source of comfort: They’re “a great resource for feeling like you’re part of a group of people invested in each other.” Each buzz or ding of the phone is a reminder that when everything seems scary and out of control, your people are still around.

Author of An Ordinary Age, out 5/4/2021. Freelance writer. Kentuckian.

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