It’s a great way to link friends and swap information… until you find yourself caught in a pre-dawn thread about the school cake sale. Kate Mansey reveals why, in 2020, group chats are the bane of everyone’s life.
It started at 6.24am today with a ping. The WhatsApp speech bubble has just popped up on my phone with a message from ‘Caroline, Jemima’s mum’ (names have been changed to protect the guilty*). What could be so urgent so early? The answer is not only inane, it’s baffling. ‘Hi, cld anyone tell me what time the school fair starts pls??! Are shop-bought cakes ok???’
I can’t place Caroline, and before I’m even out of bed I’m propped up on my elbow squinting at my phone and wondering which of my son’s classmates is called Jemima – the one with the French plaits or the girl with the Power Rangers rucksack?
Welcome to the tyranny of the WhatsApp group. I’m now the (mostly silent) participant of more than 20 groups of varying quality, and they ping away all day long. Ping, ping, ping. Groups I should have left long ago include Florence’s First Birthday (Florence is nearly two), Oh Yes It Is The Panto! (we took the kids to see Beauty and the Beast) and Leeds Reunion 2019 (a group of my university friends who, despite our graduate-level education, tried and failed to organise a ten-year anniversary get-together).
There’s even one simply called Balls. I know, but let me explain. It was set up by a friend who, presumably after a couple of glasses of wine while watching Strictly, wanted to tell me and another girlfriend that she had been watching former shadow chancellor Ed Balls dance and had quite a crush on him.
So that’s what we’re dealing with. For the uninitiated (oh, to be you), WhatsApp is a free messaging service that allows users to send and receive text messages, pictures, videos, voice messages and even make and receive calls. It’s been around for 11 years but is now owned by Facebook and has a staggering 1.5 billion users worldwide; apparently, on New Year’s Eve, 100 billion WhatsApp messages were sent worldwide, 900 million of them in the UK. With its friendly neon-green speech-bubble icon, it seems harmless enough. And, sure, it is handy when you don’t have phone reception because – providing you’ve got wifi – your message or call will always get through. It is decidedly not handy, however, when you get roped into groups against your will.
Most of my groups are benign – some are useful or even funny. My favourites are Super Nanny, where my children’s nanny posts pictures of the kids and tells us when we’ve run out of cornflakes. Then there’s Wine Time, which should really be called ‘whine time’ because it’s a group where myself and two fellow mum friends moan about motherhood – their frank comments always make me laugh.
My newly retired parents? Yep, they’re on WhatsApp, constantly posting pictures of another exotic holiday in the Maldives. Mum doesn’t believe in Facebook – too smug and boastful apparently – but sharing these things with your nearest and dearest on WhatsApp is fine. Her glorious sunsets at luxury resorts are normally received in the mornings when I’m brushing my teeth and sorting out the kids while simultaneously trying to wipe little Weetabix fingerprints off my skirt.
Then there are the daily groups that seem to blight my every waking moment. By far the worst offender is the group for my son’s reception class (icon: a flag of the country his class is named after). With 28 kids in the class and most of the parents on the WhatsApp group, there can easily be more than 20 messages a day.
The pressing matters that require my immediate attention? A quick scroll through reveals a beanie bobble hat which has been found in the playground, discussion over techniques about how to get your hands on tickets to the school fair and – my personal favourite – more than a few passive-aggressive messages. You know the ones. They’re easy to spot as they include LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS and are usually followed by a smiley emoji to make everything OK. Such as this one I received recently: ‘I’m sure it was probably an honest mistake but whoever took Dylan’s BRAND NEW sky blue Boden coat can they please bring it back to school tomorrow. It DOES have his name CLEARLY LABELLED so should be obvious it’s not yours! Thank you!’
For every passive-aggressive message there is another – submitted privately – slating the offender. Not a good idea, of course, as this approach can backfire spectacularly. One memorable example was a mum who was trying to organise a whip-round when our kids left nursery before joining ‘big school’. Rather than give the teacher 25 boxes of Quality Street, the mother had the thoughtful idea of clubbing together to buy some Post Office vouchers which can be spent in pretty much any high-street store. Another parent then chipped in that John Lewis vouchers would be better than ‘chavvy’ Post Office vouchers. Miaow. After a tumbleweed pause, my friend’s message: ‘What an a***hole’, which was meant to be sent privately to the wronged party, was broadcast to the whole group before being swiftly deleted. She still lives in fear that said ‘a***hole’ saw it.
Navigating these groups and replying in good time with the right phrase is like walking through a minefield – threatening to blow a huge hole in your social life at any given moment.
Sure, there’s a handy function that allows you to mute messages for eight hours, one week or one year. This means that you won’t get the ping to say there is a new message and it won’t flash up on your locked phone screen. It seems like the perfect solution to my problem. But be warned, this is a dangerous strategy.
I’m afraid to say I muted my extended family WhatsApp group for a week recently. I now know that four days ago there was a video posted of my cousin’s youngest child singing in her school play. I’ve seen it pop up with the triangle icon so I know I need to watch it. I can see that everyone else – aunties, uncles, siblings – have all replied with delight at how talented she is.
I’m sure she is but I’ve just been busy managing my own life, sorting out work, kids, remembering to nag my husband to take the bins out and responding to the 3,000 other WhatsApp messages I get every day. The video has been languishing in my family WhatsApp feed for four days now and it looks rude that not only have I clearly not watched it but that I haven’t replied. I’m wondering if I should reply with a thumbs-up at least, even if I’ve not seen it. Yep, maybe just do a thumbs-up and watch it before I see any of them in person.
Etiquette – and yes, there is an etiquette to these things – dictates that you can never leave a group, no matter how annoying, because then it reads ‘Kate has left the group’, which is the WhatsApp equivalent to jumping on the table at a dinner party and shouting, ‘I’m fed up with you bores, I’m going home’. The comedian Ellie Taylor hit the nail on the head when she said WhatsApp groups reminded her of the song ‘Hotel California’: you can mute it any time you like but you can never leave.
I have, however, found one surprising benefit to the awfulness of it all and that’s because my husband now lives in fear of being forced to join the group for my extended family. Don’t feel like taking the bins out? I’ll add you to the family WhatsApp. It normally does the trick.
WhatsApp etiquette: The golden rules
- Emojis are your friends. Always remember the ‘safety wink’, particularly for family groups. Jokes don’t always translate well.
- Don’t start a group for a one-off event unless it’s a big deal such as a wedding. ‘Drinks Tonight’ for a group of mates on a Friday (spelt ‘Fri-yay’ in WhatsApp world), for example, will invite a flurry of annoying messages about how Dave is a lightweight and will waste everyone’s time.
- Never leave. Mute, sure, but don’t leave. It’s rude. You might as well stick two fingers up.
- Keep photos to a minimum. Don’t post random pictures, no matter how ‘funny’ you find them. They will end up in the photo feed of the recipient and, later, when they’re scrolling through looking at pictures of their children/ grandchildren they will wonder why there is a picture of a dog being carried in a handbag.
- Stay professional. Especially true for a work group, and the general advice is to follow the politician’s rule: never write anything that you would be embarrassed to see in a national newspaper.