Why the Group Chat Stresses You Out

by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT

Sometimes, I try to remember what it was like when smart phones didn't rule the world.

In order to reach someone, you'd have to leave a message or hope they were home or the office or somewhere you could reach them. You'd come home to voicemails and maybe some emails. As a kid, you would see your friends at school or at clubs or at practice or at church or your community center. Maybe you'd plan to come over and spend more time together. But you would usually plan or talk in limited amounts.

Now, the world is very different. As soon as you wake up, you might receive texts or emails or notifications straight to your bedside. Before even registering a state of consciousness, you may already receive messages, images, ads, etc. subconsciously and become affected by them.

And then, there's the infamous group chat.

If you have a group of friends, it may be likely that you have a group text message thread with 3 or more people - and if you have an extended family, it's possible you have chats of 10-20 people. Does it stress you out? If you've ever found yourself sitting in the group chat, hyper-focusing on it, ignoring it, or rarely engaging, you might want to look at how the group chat affects you.

Right off the bat, we can notice that numbers make a difference.

If you could rate each group chat on a scale of 1-10, which ones stress you out the most? How many people are in each one?

If there are a lot of people standing in a group, then we naturally break off into smaller subgroups to hold conversations. It's hard for 20+ people to sustain one conversation without a clear leader (cite: every classroom you've experienced where the teacher did not have the class' respect) or buy in to the topic of interest.

But in a group chat, it is very disorienting to have side conversations - messages are built to sustain one topic at a time. You can only read them in linear order, and despite certain messaging programs (such as Slack) written to also hold "threads" to substitute for side conversations, the topics of the past get pushed up and away as new ones take their place. To your brain, this can feed social anxiety because of the limited time frame you have to respond to the relevant topic, or to feel like your contribution to the group is not relevant or as interesting to the participants.

Another thing to consider:

Who is in your group?

This is more obvious, but it matters. And not only do the individuals and their ages and faculty of technology matter, but the mix of who is interacting with whom matters. Being in a room with your best friend or significant other can be exciting and comfortable and fun. Being in a room with them AND your parents can add in other feelings, expectations, and boundaries on what can be discussed and what can't.

In the context of standing in a group again, you can feel comforted and more welcome in the group if you are able to stand next to someone you know really well in a group of people that you aren't as close to. In a group chat, you're not 'standing next to' anyone. You're all sitting equidistant and far away from everyone. You can only hear what is being discussed in one place. As humans, that is a very uncomfortable place to be in socially. We like feeling connected to people in order to branch out into more socially challenging spaces. Regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, the rules of the group chat seem to throw off what is much easier to gauge in person.

And.. what are their policies on digital etiquette?

Okay, I hear you already saying: "Wait, what is digital... etiquette?"

Dr. Mike Ribble coined the 9 elements of digital citizenship, which includes digital etiquette, aka the social constructs of how we agree to act online. In other words, what is an "appropriate" use of the group chat? Most of us were never taught any form of digital etiquette because by the time we were out of school, the landscape of digital technology had changed entirely. We just had to figure it out on our own, which is how most social etiquette is learned anyways. Because of the fast pace of the Internet, however, the rules can tend to change quickly, without warning, and clash and vary by group.

For example, compare an extended family group chat with a group chat of friends. The age range of the family group chat could be any mix of young cousins in their teens to grandparents in their seventies or eighties. The group chat of friends are usually all around a certain age. If the people are comfortable with technology, they may type faster and have quick conversations or send memes or articles that are thought-provoking. Messages can be sent extremely quickly, and sometimes you can come back to your phone after 20 minutes to 50 text messages volleyed back and forth between friends--an experience some perceive as overwhelming. Depending on the group, social cues can be missed and silences (being "left on read") can be interpreted as indifference or betrayal, further intensifying isolation or anxiety. Family chats can highlight the differences in understanding between generations, potentially sparking debates or misunderstandings. Your brain relies on facial expressions, body language, and tone to gauge the way a conversation is going and how to jump in and how to sit out. The group chat takes away all of those cues and we are left to try to read between the emojis instead.

So now what?

No matter anyone's age or technology experience, everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to discussing things via message vs. speaking directly to a person or a group of people.

Set boundaries.

It may be a different solution for everyone, but boundaries boundaries boundaries. You have a relationship with your phone. You have a relationship with each app and message. In every relationship, boundaries help us connect. It can be a difficult decision to leave a group chat entirely... and honestly you might not want to. So, for some, it's putting group chats on mute. Allowing notifications not to interrupt your day is one way to set that limit. For others, it's choosing when to engage in certain topics and when to have a conversation separately with one or two friends about the things that occur. For still others, it may be having a direct conversation with the group to understand the dynamic better. Oftentimes, others are experiencing the same stressors but may be afraid to speak up.

The group chat doesn't have to stress you out. It can be a life source, a connection to your dearest friends and family that help us stay afloat during difficult times and even educate us in things we may never have engaged with before. Setting boundaries and understanding its place in our lives can help us alleviate that stress.

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