In this time of isolation, stress and fear, 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, you might expect a family emergency brewing, rather than, say, a GIF of a baby farting.
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."
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 e-mail 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 OK with that, that's OK," she says. "But not everyone else is, so you're not thinking of the good of the group."
Many successful group chats have a clear purpose and intention, such as sharing recipes or family pictures, says Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of the upcoming book "Friendship in the Age of Loneliness." 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 one 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.