Everything You Ever Need To Know To Hold Your Own In Any Group Chat

group chat unwritten rules


As we gradually transition into the technocracy that will eventually serve as the foundation for our post-quarantine world, human interaction continues to evaporate. Interpersonal communication had already been hit with some pretty brutal body blows over the past few decades thanks to email, cellphones, and other forms of technology that allowed us to greatly reduce the amount of “real” conversations required to function, but the widespread use of Zoom and FaceTime during a pandemic that made six feet the standard unit of personal space was a devastating blow to the jaw it may never recover from.

Not everyone is happy about this development but I honestly couldn’t be more thrilled. Sure, I’ve known some of my best friends since middle school but that doesn’t mean I’m even remotely comfortable interacting with them when we meet up. They’re also human beings, which means it’s in their very nature to judge and criticize me at every opportunity and do so in an even harsher manner than a random stranger would because they view me as a friend. There are far too many uncontrollable variables that can come into play during an in-person conversation, and now that I’ve experienced a reality where I am the God of the domain where my end of the exchange takes place, I don’t know if I can ever go back to how things used to be.

However, I might be even more partial to another alternative that rose to prominence in the earlier part of the previous decade, one that eliminates virtually every undesirable element from the equation so people are forced to focus on what you’re actually saying as opposed to the three chins you appear to have thanks to a combination of crappy lighting and the world’s most unflattering angle. I’m talking, of course, about one of the greatest inventions in the history of mankind: the group chat.

For the uninitiated, group chats are a modern marvel that allow people to tell themselves they’re being social without ever having to leave the comfort of their own home and subsequently grants them the luxury of avoiding all of the awkward exchanges they would’ve encountered if the discussion had transpired with all of the participants in the same physical location.

As a strong, independent INTJ, group chats are probably the best thing that have ever happened to me, as you get to “hang out” with your buddies and strengthen your friendships but the only physical exertion required is moving your thumb around a screen. It’s the best of both worlds. There are some lunatics out there who seem to need to physically be around people to thrive, which I get (well, not really), but that’s just not my style.

If you want a bit more insight into how my brain works when it comes to the social aspects of life, comedian Mark Normand managed to sum it up better than I ever could.

The group chat was basically invented for people with that frame of mind. You can carefully engineer all of your comments and respond on your own time, essentially eliminating the need to improv on the spot like you would if during an in-person interaction, which far too often results in you having to apologize for something you said the next day.

Group chats are also easily the best option when it comes to communicating with friends you might’ve had previously been forced to text individually. Do people even still text one-on-one? That seems like it could only go poorly. How would you even end the conversation? I always feel like I need to say the last thing or I’m going to feel like I’ve somehow lost a competition that doesn’t exist.

However, group chats are also littered with opportunities to embarrass yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you approach them the same way as an email, an individual text, or a face-to-face exchange, you’re going to come off like an absolute psycho.

So what do you need to know about proper group chat protocol? How do you handle yourself in different situations? What do you do when you find yourself in one you want to escape? Luckily for you, I have ample experience in this territory and I’ve decided to share my wealth of knowledge to help people navigate these occasionally murky social waters.

The first thing you need to understand is that all group chats are not created equal. You’ll likely find yourself using them to interact with best friends, immediate family, college friends, extended family, high school friends, co-workers, old co-workers, and similarly defined groups at some point in time. You’ll mostly harness them to communicate with your closest family members and the people in your various friend groups, but there are some sadly inevitable occasions where your aunt will use the chat that was used to coordinate the food everyone was bringing to the Fourth of July three years ago to ask a personal question about the ointment she suggested for that, um, problem you told her about, resulting in an awkward parade of “HaHa” reactions from your closest relatives.

You likely have at least a couple of group chats that see at least a little bit of action on a daily basis, and once you’re locked into them, it shouldn’t take long to get a feel for the various archetypes that are represented in almost every single one—including three you’ll encounter more often than any other.

It’s worth noting there aren’t many people who will fall exclusively under one of these umbrellas and there may be some days where they’ll suddenly be in an entirely different category. It happens; people take Adderall, feel that euphoric rush, and feel compelled to type a novel concerning the itinerary for the upcoming trip with the boys and then go radio silent for a week after it wears off.

With that said, there are three distinct levels of activity that you can use when it comes to evaluating the contributions of almost every participant.

1. Always Active and Engaging

This guy is always starting conversations, responding to others, and reacting to every single text and development. If he’s not actively involved in a conversation for more than 10 minutes, you should call 911 because something is probably seriously wrong.

Also, this person is almost always single.

As a proud, longtime member of this group, I think I can shed some valuable light on what makes us tick. People in this category constantly feel like they are bothering the group with their endless stream of random texts, but because they don’t have a girlfriend they can annoy with mundane shit, other people end up being subjected to it. Every once in a while, they scroll through old conversations and realize there is a truly disproportionate amount of blue (or green, if you have a friend with an Android you somehow haven’t disowned) and resolve to chill with the texting only to inevitably relapse in less than 24 hours.

I don’t want to psych anyone out, but if you’re in this category, the people in the following two probably have their own group chat where the primary topic of conversation is your inability to shut the fuck up. If you keep trying to clean things up but can’t follow through, maybe that’ll give you some motivation.

2. Rarely Active and Always Engaging

This is pretty straightforward. This guy almost never initiates a conversation, but once someone else does, they’ll happily contribute to the discussion until they feel it’s run its course or they find something more interesting to do in real life. This person almost always has a girlfriend, because he is willing to talk but rarely feels the need to spark a dialogue because he can bounce whatever he needs to get off his chest with bae.

You can always rely on this guy to bring something to the table—just don’t expect him to set it or you’re going to be hungry as hell.

3. Rarely Active or Engaging

You rarely find a person under the age of 30 who fits this bill because being hopelessly addicted to technology is just kind of something most members of younger generations have accepted is a defining aspect of their existence.

Now, this guy is a pragmatist who only gets in on the action when he has a very good reason to. If he sends a text, it’s because he viewed whatever he shared as essential information. He’s basically the parent of the chat who doesn’t have time for any of the juvenile nonsense everyone else is frequently engaged in. However, every now and then, he’ll let his hair down and come out of the clouds with a joke no one saw coming and you will never see the chat as fired up than during those rare moments.

In addition to those universally recognized archetypes, there are also a number of unwritten rules that govern the group chat world—like this ancient adage:

I’ve never actually been part of that kind of subchat, but after spending eight years familiarizing myself with the ones that spawn them, I’ve identified several unspoken laws everyone should abide by—rules that I have broken on countless occasions over that span but which I am nonetheless aware of and that you should be as well.

1. Always acknowledge the previous text before sending an unrelated one (even if it absolutely bombed)

This may as well be the Golden Rule of group chats: respond to others the way you want to be responded to. If you’re coming into the chat with a funny story or hypothetical scenario that you know will spark a heated debate, the least you can do is acknowledge the response you’re blatantly steering the conversation away from.

You don’t have to spend too much time on the segue but you should at least toss an “Emphasize” or “Thumbs up” to the previous message, even if you’re basically just saying, “Hey guys, Mikey said this earlier. We all saw it and ignored it because it was stupid, so I am now moving on to something much less shitty.”

The exception to this rule is if the last text was a natural end to a conversation more than one person participated in. If that’s the case, you’re good to go, but if you’re sharing some wild stat you stumbled across after someone else informed everyone their grandma died only to be met with crickets, you need to react with a  “thumbs down” so they know A) you saw it and B) you dislike their grandma dying.

Once that’s taken care of, you can send that “Did you guys know that Barry Bonds set the record for intentional walks with a number that’s higher than the combined total of the players in second and third place?” text that will inevitably garner a much better reception than that downer that preceded it.

2. If you’re a Major Talker, it’s your duty to respond to almost everything

Major Talkers are the label I use to describe the individuals who fall into the first of the three major categories previously discussed; the ones who crave human interaction as much as everyone else wants him to find love so they don’t get a notification every hour.

As I mentioned above, one of the worst parts about earning this reputation is that you feel compelled to frequently contribute because you know people will become concerned—or even worse: disrespected—if you suddenly go dark. If you’re the dude who barely talks, you can keep your interactions to a minimum and no one notices or cares. Those people can occasionally ramp up production and scale back without any issue, but once you’ve established yourself as a Major Talker, you can never be anything else.

I know some of you may be thinking, “Well, what if you’re not near your phone?” It’s a valid question. People actually have jobs and personal issues to attend to that require them to put their phones down from time to time (or at least that’s what I’m told. I can’t say I’ve ever let real life get in the way of my sworn duties). If you encounter such a scenario as a Major Talker, you’re obliged to make up for lost time with a flurry of responses to all of the messages you missed.

Will it annoy the hell out of everyone? Yes, but you’re a Major Talker. Annoyance is the defining aspect of your existence. You might as well embrace it.

3. If someone throws in a link, act like you clicked it even if you didn’t

This is similar to the Golden Rule, but while that simply applies to the next person to respond to something no one cared about, everyone has to adhere to this. You can ignore a shitty story or a dumb joke, but when someone throws in a YouTube video, a TikTok, or a link to something described as a “great read,” someone needs to hit them with an “lol,” or “damn, good stuff,” or some other perfunctory response in the timeliest manner possible

You don’t even have to watch or read whatever it is they took the time to share because they thought it might provide you with some enjoyment. In order to avoid arousing suspicion with an unrealistically prompt response, you should probably click the link so you can see the length of the video you were expected to sit through or how long it would’ve taken you to read the article you rapidly scrolled through instead, but that’s the extent of the effort you have to exert.

Now, these scenarios feature a bit of a conundrum concerning collective obligation that economics majors such as myself instantly recognize as being a textbook example of the “free-rider problem” (at least I think that’s what it’s called; I graduated with a 2.3 GPA so there is a very good chance I’m wrong). The term refers to a phenomenon that’s frequently observed when a group of people is given a task that can be completed by a single individual only for everyone to assume someone else will take care of it, meaning it either gets put off for longer than necessary or simply never gets done at all.

As a result, the onus is on you to pull the trigger if no one else has by the time it comes to your attention. You’ll provide whoever you’re responding to with some gratification at no real cost to yourself and earn the appreciation of everyone else you took the pressure off of with your reply.

4. Genuine excitement requires a genuine reply (even if it makes you feel bad about yourself)

If someone gets engaged, lands a promotion, has a kid, or shares any kind of news society has deemed “exciting,” you need to take the time to craft a thoughtful response to acknowledge it. Choosing from the lineup of default reactions isn’t going to cut it here.

There is nothing I would love more than to just “Emphasize!” the text concerning the second promotion my friend as gotten since I became unemployed and hope he understands I’m trying to say, “I hate you with every fiber of my being,” but I can’t. We are living in a society!

5. What happens in the group chat stays in the group chat

A group chat is like Mecca, a psychiatrist’s office, and a Planet Fitness all rolled into one; it’s a sacred place, a safe space, and a judgment-free zone. Simply alluding to the information that’s shared inside that sanctum with someone outside of it is a grave violation of trust and it should go without saying that sharing a screenshot or *gasp* allowing an outsider to scroll through a chat is grounds for immediate expulsion.

It’s almost like the code in The Matrix: the uninitiated might recognize the symbols on the screen but they’re impossible to understand unless you’re privy to the code necessary to interpret what is really being said. It’s easy for someone to read dozens of texts concerning scenarios where pooping in the shower is acceptable and jump to some ill-formed conclusions without being able to supplement them with years of context and inside jokes. Would some of those conclusions still be accurate nonetheless? Probably, but they don’t know which ones they’d be right about which is really all that matters in the end. 

Finally, if a group chat ever reaches a point where it earns the highest honor that can be bestowed upon one—getting its own name—it is your duty to never reveal the meaning behind it to any prying minds that might inquire. Not only is it like giving away the password to your secret club, it’s likely some obscure reference you’ll spend way too long explaining and they’ll ultimately just awkwardly respond, “Um…sure?” and quickly steer the conversation in another direction.

That’s basically all you have to know to hold your own in a group chat, but before we wrap this up, there is one major dark side I alluded to earlier that I feel obligated to address. 

Group Chat Jail

A couple of years ago, my core group of friends teamed up with some people outside of our primary chat to rent a beach house, which they’ve stayed at for the past two summers. If you remember my previous article related to that topic, you know I am not the biggest fan of the beach, which—in addition to my negative bank account balance—is why I’ve declined to go in on either occasion.

However, I have visited for a few days each year, which I guess made them think it would be a good idea to add me to their chat in what may have been the most misguided friendly gesture in human history. It. Is. Miserable. I have never reacted or responded. I’m just…there. I normally view myself as a hybrid of the first two archetypes I outlined, but in this scenario, I’m the most extreme example of the third one that you’ll ever encounter.

It’s been especially rough this year because they all made the decision to “isolate” together within walking distance of the ocean, meaning I regularly get woken up by late-night texts about their drunken hijinks because I’m currently living with my parents and go to bed at 10 PM because I’ve found sleep is the most effective cure for my boredom.

But what am I supposed to do? Leave?  Why? So they can all get the “Tj Francis left the chat” notification that signifies it’s open season for roasting me harder than they probably already have been in the actual conversations within the non-virtual group chat that is the beach house? Hard pass. They’ll also have no way of knowing why I left, which will likely lead to multiple people texting me variations of, “Dude, what’s the deal?” I’ve already made it clear how I feel about individual conversations so that’s basically off the table.

So, I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. At this point, it’s either leave and deal with the fallout or stay in the chat and feel like a complete loser as I see them having fun and living life as I do the exact opposite. Every time I get a new notification, I debate leaving but I can never force myself to follow through thanks to my crippling fear of the unknown (yes, I have it muted, but I’m not one of the lunatics who canjust go through life with red bubbles reminding me about the 37 texts and 45,689 emails I’ve ignored).

I think the best solution here would be for Apple to get its shit together and allow you to disable the notification informing everyone else in the chat you abandoned that you’re a spineless coward but I guess that’s a bit too tall of an order for a trillion-dollar company to tackle.

I understand this is a lot of information to process, but above all, there’s nothing more important than understanding your place in a chat and knowing what you bring to the table. If you can keep those unwritten rules in mind and just have some self-awareness, you should be able to avoid making any disastrous mistakes you can’t recover from—unless you end up in Group Chat Jail. In that case, good fucking luck.

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