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Why Are Family WhatsApp Groups So Stressful?

There are no winners in family WhatsApp groups, only survivors.

A year ago, I sent an exasperated message to a family WhatsApp group. I don't remember the context, but I do remember being at the end of my tether. "I will be muting this group for a year", I declared, vowing I'd "only use it for emergencies". It's unlike me to be so dramatic, but an accumulation of banalities, interspersed with nothing photos had thrown me into a fugue state where something as harmless as a renovated deck photo would set me off. "Did that person seriously just share a photo of stupid deck with the whole group? WHAT WAS THE REASON? "I'd think to myself, before throwing my phone at the wall (I'm kidding, my iPhone 6 couldn't take the hit). 

So, what is it about Family WhatsApp groups that is so stressful?

Is it the endless stream of mundanities that sets us off? I took to asking some members of the public to find out. "They're fucking boring" says Sally*, one reluctant captive of a Family WhatsApp group. "My one which has my whole extended family is just pics of my cousin's baby and I'm sorry, it's just not enjoyable", she reveals. "I do not partake", she adds, describing herself as a reluctant "lurker". Another pained member of a Family WhatsApp group, Claire*, reckons the group is the "bane of [her] existence". "My two brothers' kids recently joined the group and they're talking about rubik's cubes. They're really competitive about them. I think they like to be called 'cubers'. This is getting weird."

It could also be WhatsApp's tendency toward misinformation that gets people's backs up. In the earlier days of a pandemic, I vividly recall a cousin posting a video of a woman supposedly coughing on supermarket fruit. "Please stop forwarding fake news!!!" another member rightfully chimed in. "Especially racist fake news!!!" they continued. "Oh my god, such an impatient response", the original poster replied. "Please excuse me," he continued before swiftly leaving the group. "Happy to leave and let him rejoin", the objector offered. The exchange elicited about 24 hours of radio silence before a 50-something aunt in Toronto decided this was the perfect time to send through her first attempt at a TikTok.

The horror of Family WhatsApp groups may also be an artefact of faceless modes of communication more generally. "The problem with Whatsapp is you have no other cues to guide the interaction. The sender can't see your distaste as you open yet one more GIF about alcohol being the only solution to Covid-19," says one expert in The Huffington Post. "Nor can they see the anguish on your face, or any other facial or body language cues that would alert them to your preference to not be exposed to this material." As face-to-face communication is a richer, more multisensory experience it allows you to gauge the emotional reactions of the people around you and better attend to the needs. Basically, you're less likely to piss people off when they're there in the flesh.

So why don't you just leave the group, you ask? Aha! If only. Yep, one of the biggest bummers about Family WhatsApp groups is that they're kind of mandatory. As Nikesh Shukla writes in The Guardian: The family WhatsApp group is an obligation, much like going home for Diwali or being the first one to text your parent a happy birthday. It'll never be as fun as the groups you have with your mates, but you can never get annoyed and leave." In fact, the one time I did actually leave a group made up of cousins who I'd mostly never met, I was messaged directly by an older relative who ran me through the importance of family and promptly  re-added me.

At the time of writing, millions, maybe billions of us remain captives of family Whatsapp groups; lurking in quiet desperation. We cringe, we mute, we hover. We may occasionally emerge to drop a birthday wish or a tastefully-chosen gif. But we are bored. And some day, one day, we will find the courage to say it. Non-anonymously.

* Names have been changed for fear of familial retribution.

Written by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based writer for MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @purpletank.

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