Dealing with ‘Friendship Overload’ in the Age of
Victoria Turk on Digital Etiquette and Work-Life Balance
You know the feeling. You’ve barely responded to one message when another comes in. Then two more. Your phone is buzzing as if possessed, your unread message count is soaring—and you haven’t even opened your work email.
Most of us have experienced digital overload in the workplace, as we desperately chase the elusive promise of Inbox Zero only to find our time dominated by answering emails and Slack messages rather than doing our jobs. But as more of our non-work relationships are conducted through digital means—over messaging apps, group chats, social media—this strain is seeping beyond the confines of the digital office and into our personal lives. Our messaging feeds are becoming as stressful as our inboxes. Can there be such a thing as “friendship overload”?
It feels shameful to admit that, sometimes, staying on top of communication with friends can seem more like a chore than a pleasure—just another piece of after-hours life admin. These are supposed to be your friends, after all. When faced with constantly-replenishing unread texts, un-liked Instagram posts and unreturned DMs, however, it’s perhaps only natural to feel a bit overwhelmed.
How can you save your sanity without being a bad friend? It may be helpful to borrow some of the techniques used to combat office email overload. A key principle in maintaining Inbox Zero, for instance, is that you should only check your email inbox when you actually have time to do something with its contents. Extending this to instant messaging so that you only check WhatsApp or iMessage when you feasibly have a chance to respond could help avoid the grievous digital etiquette sin of leaving a friend “on read.” It might also relieve you of guilt. Try answering a message immediately with a short reply acknowledging that you’ve read it (a quick “haha”, a thumbs-up emoji) and then follow up with a more in-depth response at your leisure.
In group chats especially, maintaining some level of messaging hygiene is necessary to prevent things from getting out of control. Chats with too many participants can soon get unwieldy, just like an email chain in which too many people have been included on CC.Part of the reason our digital friendships can start feeling too much like work is because of the ways our professional and personal communications intersect.
That said, the etiquette of work email doesn’t always translate to personal communications; this is one area where maximizing efficiency should not be the principal aim (and if it is, you probably need to reflect more on your friendship than your digital messaging habits.) There’s an important distinction between professional and personal obligations, and if you’re treating your friends more like colleagues or clients, you’re doing something wrong. You can’t out-of-office a friend’s text message, nor would it be appropriate to do so.
This crucial distinction was demonstrated last year in the widely critical response to a tweet (which soon became a meme) in which writer Melissa A. Fabello suggested a template message for telling a friend you were too busy to help with their problems, including the phrase “I’m actually at capacity.” The problem with this is that bringing elements usually associated with corporate communications (e.g., jargon like “at capacity,” the notion of using a template in the first place) into personal communications risks appearing cold and dismissive, and just isn’t very, well, friendly. While it may be necessary to establish boundaries in a personal relationship, your response to a friend in need should never be centered on how the timing is inconvenient for you.
Part of the reason our digital friendships can start feeling too much like work is because of the ways our professional and personal communications intersect. They can often happen at the same time, in the same place, and on the same platforms. We’re so used to feeling overburdened at work that, when we get another ping of a message, our immediate instinct is to think “what now?”
Try using different platforms for your work and personal life—you probably don’t need a work WhatsApp group, for example, and it’s best to avoid emailing friends unless your message is really too long for a text (in which case you should also always use private and not company email addresses). Trying to limit your friendship communications to one main platform reduces the extra labor (minimal in practical terms but which mentally adds up) of constantly switching from, say, iMessage to Instagram Messages to Twitter DMs to Facebook, and so on, and will help stop things from falling through the cracks.
Ultimately, of course, friendships are more personal than professional engagements, and there’s much more flexibility in what can be considered the “correct” way to conduct them. People are different; some like to have a constant stream of digital communication on the go, others may message on a more need-to-know basis. Neither approach is ‘better’ than the other, nor should you fall into the trap of judging a friendship by something as arbitrary as message frequency or average response time.
I have one friend who messages daily and another who can go silent for weeks at a time, yet if I needed either one of them I know that both would be there for me—as I would be for them. Part of friendship means learning one another’s habits and quirks, and, where necessary, compromising.
You should be able to speak honestly with your friends. If you’re feeling overloaded, say so without making it a big deal. Feeling guilty about struggling to keep up is perhaps as much a sign of the strength of a friendship as any weakness: it means you care.
Victoria Turk’s Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love is now available from Plume. All rights reserved.