I think my personal breaking point was a GroupMe with 750 college seniors in it. Though I am part of several lovely group chats, that was the one that made me realize that sometimes you’ve got to cut and run.
While the group chat as a technology for keeping in touch received a lot of praise during the height of the pandemic, it seems like lately people are coming around to the idea that some—many!—group chats aren’t lifelines at all: They’re downright bad. Even group chat emporium WhatsApp knows it: The service recently announced that it was embracing the Irish goodbye by introducing a way for users to exit group chats without notifying the rest of the group. Technically, ditching a bad text chain has never been easier.
Maybe this has been on your mind because it’s the time of year that your least favorite group chat has been lighting up with holiday plans and Spotify Wrapped results, or its occupants are simply doing what they always do, which is never shutting up. Whatever the case, it’s prime time to think about starting 2023 without that smartphone albatross. This is not to say that just because it’s technically easy to get out (some of the time) means it’s emotionally easy. Group chat disillusionment is everywhere, but so is group chat guilt: the feeling that you can’t just leave.
I surveyed friends, family, and people on Twitter about the very worst threads they’re part of. The results were illuminating—as were everyone’s reasons for not leaving … yet .
One of the most common sources of group chat frustration was family group chats. I seem to have gotten lucky with mine—the Loeb family group chat is pure chaotic good—but others, like a friend of mine who I’ll call Angela, can’t say the same. (Angela and everyone else quoted in this article were given pseudonyms for shit-talking purposes.) Angela, who is a recent college grad like me, said a recent incident involving a cousin of hers offered a perfect illustration of the problem she’s dealing with.
Last December this cousin, instead of sending out wedding invitations, invited everyone to his wedding via the group chat. But many members of the family, understandably, had the chat on mute, a bunch of them missed the invitation, and were subsequently publicly called out in the chat. “If I knew our relationships were this sour, I would have acted differently,” the cousin wrote.
Angela explained that she stays because she feels like she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. “Leaving is too much drama, so muting makes way more sense.” She’s not even sure she could leave if she wanted to. After Angela’s grandma’s death two years ago, one of her aunts acquired her phone and still uses it to text things like “I love you” to the chat. “This family won’t even let my dead grandma leave the group chat,” Angela said.
Another very common flavor of bad group chat experience involves people you used to be close with but have since drifted away from. About five years ago, Kevin, a middle-aged Pittsburgher, was added to a group chat of some friends from high school. While he has since moved out of their hometown, most of his friends have remained there and become, in his words, “super-Republican MAGA Trumpers.”
“Their views and the things they say and their jokes haven’t changed since high school and some of it is quite offensive, honestly,” he said. According to Kevin, they constantly drop the F- and N-words, make fun of trans kids, and crack mom jokes “like we’re 18-year-olds in high school.” He alternates between calling them out and not responding for months on end.
He also literally can’t leave. The chat was started by someone with an Android, so there’s no way to remove himself. The other group chat members have taken to ignoring his pleas to be taken out, calling him a “snowflake.”
“It’s a very weird dynamic,” he explained. “I grew up with these people and at my core, I care about them and want to believe they’re good people. I think keeping in touch is nice, but I like them less and less every time they send a message. I just get so mad.”
Nathan, a California-based journalist in his 20s, also finds himself in a group of peers whose views no longer align with his—in his case, a Discord with some friends from college.
“A lot of the people who are more active in it have politics that I’ve come to find increasingly unsavory, talking about current events in a way I can’t earnestly engage with,” he said. Although he’s not very active in it—he described himself as “just a name in the chat”—he said one of the most disturbing discussions in the chat was one in which his former classmates talked about how the vaccine mandate was akin to the Holocaust.
Like Kevin, Nathan still likes some of the people and feels like staying is the path of least resistance. “Even if I have no intention of staying in touch with these people in any real way, I’m like, ‘Do I want to deal with quitting out of a window that I never really actually look at?’ ” he said.
Of course, no discussion of bad chats would be complete without mention of one of the worst genres of the form: the wedding chat. “In my late 20s, I’ve discovered bachelorette group chats and they are BY FAR the worst,” Hilary, who lives in Florida, wrote to me. As she explained, watching the power struggles can be extremely weird. “There’s always a controlling sister or friend that thought they were going to be maid of honor and they aren’t. So they use this space to take it out on everyone else and see every decision they aren’t included in as a slight,” she wrote. “The maid of honor is then also constantly playing defense, and the rest of us are just trying to steer clear of it as much as possible.”
Hilary also noted how insincere many of the interactions are. “Most the time you don’t know over half of the people and yet everyone acts like we’re all BFFs. A lot of emojis and ‘Can’t wait to meet you girlies!’ flying around.” And, unless you’re really willing to blow up the situation, there is no escape. “You’re there for the bride so you have to put up with it.”
Or do you? I consulted a professional in relationship dynamics (yes, such a thing exists) for advice that could help the Hilarys and the Nathans of the world—i.e., all of us—get out. Kathleen Smith, a licensed therapist based in Washington, D.C., emphasized that there’s no right way to do it.
Smith offered an explanation as to why group chats can be alluring in the first place. “As humans, we operate in clumps—that’s what our brains are built to do to navigate these complex social relationships,” Smith said. “It’s often much easier to relate to the group than to have one-on-one relationships with people, so in that sense, it can be easier to relate to family or friends in a group text than one on one.”
As for leaving? You are allowed to just get out, without saying anything, even if you feel awkward about it. But if you feel like you can, challenge yourself to explain to the group or some of its members why you no longer want to communicate with them via mass text, suggested Smith. “Being able to tell people your thinking about how to relate to other people and where you want to put your energy is important,” she explained.
Be careful not to shame other people for being involved in the group chat, or reveal that you’re leaving because you think they’re a bunch of unruly animals. Smith pointed out that a mistake people often make is trying to tell other people how to behave better. She said that instead of falling into that trap, she believes what you say to the other person should be centered around you and your feelings.
Smith theorized that one reason people stay in group chats is that they want to keep up with news about what’s going on with everyone, even if it means putting up with antics. This sense of wanting to stay in the loop is the main reason Ana, a 38-year-old living in the U.K., has stayed in an otherwise toxic group chat.
For the past two years, Ana has been in a WhatsApp group that consists of wives and girlfriends of a tight group of male friends. As Ana explained, the chat is mostly quiet—not just because she mutes it—until every so often, there’ll be a flurry of activity. According to Ana, this usually happens when the husbands and boyfriends organize to do something together and then the women want to revolt and do something to get back at them. There’s also “lots of bitching about their partners, parenting advice as most of them are mums, and general pettiness,” she said.
She explained that the group is mostly made up of women who don’t really like each other or have anything in common, but felt obliged to feign the appearance of a united front. “Our partners being friends is the only thing that connects us,” she said. “The majority of the women, or ringleaders if you like, are really aloof, rude, and passive-aggressive. When I see them in person, they’re all smiles and chatty, but as soon as you turn your back the smiles switch off. It’s very high school bitchiness.”
“I think WhatsApp groups help people feel part of something even if it’s sometimes not real,” she mused. She may decide to stay in the chat in 2023, but if she does, it’ll likely be for a more cynical reason than that. “Better the devil you know,” she said.