It’s very likely that at some point during your years of having a working cell phone number, you’ve experienced the situation of having stepped away from your device for some period of time—because it’s charging in another room, because you’re in a work meeting, because it’s set to silent while you’re in a movie, etc.—only to return to an alarming number of message notifications. Now you’re playing catchup, perhaps skimming the transcript with bated breath, worried that something is actually wrong. Or maybe you’re just reading as quickly as possible so you can get in on the joke. But no matter the tone, and no matter how you embrace this onslaught of notifications, during this COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all already feeling stressed. So while there are already a few basic tenants that should govern these chats, now such guidelines for group chat etiquette are even more important.
By complying with social distancing rules in place, we’re relying even more than usual on digital communication to help us feel connected in a world that feels increasingly isolated. So, yeah, safe to say there’s more texting happening these days than you might be used to.
That’s the case with my group chats, at least. I’m a part of several different active group chats—ones ranging in number of members from three to 20-plus—and on top of getting one distressing news update after the next, the constant messages from my friends, which I usually relish receiving, seem to be stressing me out. And that makes total sense considering that just about all the notifications—group text or otherwise—seem to be related to COVID-19. And, to be clear, none of the updates are ever good. So, ascertaining that I’d be wise to rethink my relationship with my push notifications, I sought professional advice to navigate group chat etiquette during this time.
First, I was grateful to learn, not responding to your group chat messages right away doesn’t make you a bad person. “In general, it’s important to check in with yourself. If chatting with a group makes you feel connected and comforted, then by all means keep engaging,” says psychotherapist Amy Cirbus, PhD. “If you begin to feel overwhelmed, put measures in place to limit your exposure. Put your phone on silent, only check in a few times per day.” This may be difficult, especially if you are on your phone more since accepting a new, socially distanced reality, but if you have an iPhone you can mute alerts for different chats. That way, you’re not getting pinged every time someone hearts the article your friend Mary shared.
“Avoid news that is focused on ‘what-if’ scenarios as well as those that appear like news but are simply conversation.” —psychotherapist Amy Cirbus, PhD
Speaking of those pings, you know how in regular times, when someone drops something in the group chat that’s not really relevant to anything but is still shocking, and then, all of a sudden, you pick up your phone and have 476 unread messages? It’ll take you five minutes to catch up and realize, ‘oh, false alarm,’ because the article in question was debunked by Snopes.
Sure, that’s an annoying reality of group chats that many are forced to navigate, but during pandemic times, there’s really no room in group chat etiquette for such false alarms. If you share any COVID-19-related updates even casually with your BFF or family group, it better be from a reputable source, because there’s no room right now for any lack of reliability. Furthermore, prioritize sources and topics that are most relevant to you and your chat, so that you don’t perpetuate unnecessary fear. “Avoid news that is focused on ‘what-if’ scenarios as well as those that appear like news but are simply conversation,” Dr. Cirbus says.
On a more basic level, as I mentioned, I’m part of group chats of three people and also more than 20, and it’s key to note that group chat etiquette rules vary when vastly different numbers of people are in conversation at once. “In general, you can speak more freely and more often with smaller groups of close friends and family,” Dr. Cirbus says. “With larger groups, it’s important to be cognizant of oversharing or sharing too frequently. Be mindful that larger groups will have more diversity of thought. You can keep comments and engagement limited to those topics that you most connect with.” So, in other words, don’t feel obligated to respond to every. single. message.
And finally, prioritize yourself and your mental health always, but especially during a time like this. “If you need to turn off notifications or keep your phone in another room while you work, feel free to set those limits for yourself,” Dr. Cirbus says. Trust that the group chat will still be there when you get back.
Compassion meditation can help you feel less lonely while you’re social distancing. (And that can be extra-important to know if you’re feeling the urge to text your ex right now, as many of us are).