Important family conversations used to happen around the dinner table. Now, they’re often relegated to text chains that may encompass a dozen people from different generations who have varying levels of technological comfort. What could go wrong?
“Having sat across the table from hundreds of families in crisis, I can tell you this: nothing escalates a feud quite like a misunderstood text,” says Laura Wasser, a divorce lawyer based in Los Angeles. “Family is forever, but text mishaps? Those can linger a bit too long for anyone's comfort.”
Some forms of etiquette—like table manners—persist over time, says Daniel Post Senning, a spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute and author of books including Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online. Etiquette around communication, on the other hand, is changing rapidly. He describes his great-great grandmother, the etiquette icon Emily Post, as being highly concerned when phones transitioned from business tools to devices installed in people’s homes. She worried about the impact they would have on family life, and how often they’d disrupt family dinners. (Spoiler alert: All the time.) Now Senning describes himself as the “rank amateur” in his family’s text chain—he’s still coming to terms with the offense younger generations take to periods at the end of sentences.
Yet he and other experts believe that if we all set out to be kind, considerate, and respectful, our messaging threads can facilitate meaningful conversations. (Yes, even during those chaotic occasions when 15 members of the thread are firing away about what they’ll bring for Thanksgiving dinner or sharing their holiday wish lists.)
With that in mind, consider these rules for managing your family text chain.
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Choose your topics wisely
The first rule of family text chains: Never deliver bad news via text. This is not the way to share an alarming diagnosis or inform your relatives that the beloved family cat has died. Ideally, Senning adds, you also won’t announce really great news by thumbing out a quick message; you’ll connect with relatives more personally by picking up the phone—or visiting them in person. “There can be limitations to the written word,” he says. “The reality is, we understand each other best when we’re face-to-face.”
In general, limit text conversation to topics you would feel comfortable addressing face-to-face, says Reena B. Patel, a San Diego-based psychologist. Avoid politics if that’s a heated topic in your family, and stay away from jokes that someone could take the wrong way. That includes the meme you've been guffawing over because it reminds you of a certain family member. “They could feel ganged up on,” she says.
Know your audience
Can we BFFR for a minute? Not everyone understands the lingo today’s hip texters drop into casual conversations. (In case you’re wondering: The aforementioned abbreviation is a colorful way of instructing recipients to be real.)
Try to be mindful of the different age groups in your chat and use words that the recipients probably won’t need to look up, advises Kelsey Wonderlin, a therapist in Nashville who teaches a crash course on texting. Likewise, if you’re the one who doesn’t understand a family member’s lingo, “It’s OK to just say, ‘Hey, what does that mean?’ Or, ‘Can you say that in a different way?’” she suggests. Sometimes misunderstandings lend themselves to a new family joke: Your 80-year-old grandpa might adopt some millennial slang that he enjoys dropping into casual conversations. “But you have to know your audience with that,” Wonderlin says.
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Consider starting a side convo
If you’re curious about what’s for dinner, send your partner a text. Avoid pinging the family chat—or your sister and great-aunt and second cousin once removed might end up expecting spots at the table, too. “The conversation needs to be important for everyone, not just one individual in the group,” Patel says. “It’s easy to send it to everyone, but is it really necessary?”
She recommends keeping the larger thread light and fun, with silly gifs and quick check-ins that will be relevant to everyone involved. Ask yourself: Is your message helpful? Will it be purposeful or meaningful for the rest of your family members? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary information? If the answer to all of those questions is “no,” rethink hitting the send button. Don’t hesitate to spin off the conversation into a new thread if it applies to only one other person, Patel adds—or if the topic isn’t appropriate for the entire family’s eyes. You could also create multiple threads: one for just the immediate family members; one where the siblings chat; another that includes aunts and uncles. Patel’s family, for example, calls their group thread Fam-Bam; they also have Fam-Bam X, which includes kids. “It doesn’t mean you’re excluding people,” she says.
Be mindful of how many messages you send—and aim for brevity
Get your etiquette antenna out, Senning challenges, and take a look at your group chat. Is it a lot of you, you, and—you? “If you open it up and no one else is participating,” it might be time to take a breath and lay low, he says.
In addition to refraining from rapid-fire messages, it’s important to be mindful of length. Ideally, your messages will be bite-size, not long missives. “Texts are meant to be short,” says Lisa Mirza Grotts, an etiquette expert based in San Francisco. “If someone has to print it to read it, it’s too long.”
Watch the clock
Wonderlin never texts her mother-in-law—who goes to bed at 9 p.m.—late at night. “I know she sleeps with her notifications on in case of an emergency,” she says, which means an 11 p.m. message would likely wake her up. It’s important to keep time zones and sleeping hours in mind: If you know people sleep with their phones off, feel free to send messages they can respond to in the morning. But otherwise, hold off and send it the next day, she says.
If you’re annoyed, put the phone down
It can be difficult to interpret tone and intent via text messaging. If you’re feeling irritated about something a family member said in the group chat, “put the phone down for some period of time,” Wonderlin says. Do an “emotion-regulation activity,” like taking deep breaths, going outside, lighting a candle, or wrapping yourself in a blanket, she advises. Then, when you feel calm enough to return to the conversation, message the other person individually (or, even better, call them) and say: “Hey, I’m perceiving a little friction between us in the group chat. Rather than read into it, I wanted to talk with you directly and make sure we're good.”
Give a heads-up before adding someone to the chat
At some point, before officially adding someone to the family, you might be tempted to add them to the family text chain. First, consider how private the information exchanged in the thread is, Senning suggests: Does your mom use it to share personal medical updates about your dad? That kind of information might be for nuclear family members’ eyes only.
If you’re inclined to move forward adding someone to the group, let the existing members know ahead of time—and give them a chance to veto it, Senning says. Once the new person has been added, make sure to introduce them properly so everyone can say hello: “Hey everyone, I just added Jenna.” And spend a few minutes helping the new textee match up phone numbers with names, so they know exactly who sent that burst of welcome emojis.
Feel free to use the "mute” option—and don’t be afraid to take a break
In some families, leaving the text chain would be akin to opting out of the family unit itself. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are options: “There’s no shame in muting the notifications,” Wasser says—which iPhones, for example, allow you to do for any length of time. “Do what you need to maintain your sanity. Self-care isn't selfish; it's self-preservation.”
Ideally, you might tell the group that you’re busy and look forward to rejoining the conversation in a couple hours (or days, or weeks). To figure out if this is necessary, Senning suggests asking yourself whether you’d be missed if you suddenly stopped responding. “Would it leave someone else with a question mark in their mind about what’s going on with you or where you’ve gone?” he asks. “Some people have built up expectations that the responses come fast and serious, and it’s the primary mode of communication—so dropping out of the exchange would be akin to not coming home at the end of the day.” If that’s the case, send a courtesy message before pausing the electronic manifestation of your family. If not, simply hit mute until you’re ready to engage again. Either way, it’s OK to enjoy the silence.
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