Hi, WhatsApp? This is your mental health and we need to talk

The social media app has been a lifesaver in coordination and keeping friendships in check – but it’s also bred tonal paranoia. Georgie Bradley has some issues…
Hi, WhatsApp? This is your mental health and we need to talk
Graphic by Humeara Mohammed

Recently, I got a message from a friend who punched out a perfunctory “we need to talk” in our two-year long WhatsApp conversation thread. On a scale of 0 to 10 on the ‘‘OMG what have I done?’ Richter Scale, my anxiety levels were pretty near 11.

I do not wish that lingering feeling that you’ve done something wrong on anyone – the unsolicited slide your stomach takes into your nether regions, producing an ashen-hued face up top.

It turned out, my friend just wanted to see how I was doing.

I couldn’t place it, I couldn’t name it nor could I understand why I felt this way. That subconscious level of stress has become a mainstay.

As a woman, I default to regular sanity checks. Not meaning to feed the stereotype, but as a sex, women are predetermined to catch the symptoms of the ‘I am in trouble’ syndrome. I’m just going to put it down to the patriarchal rule of thumb that women are associated with messing up more than men. But that’s fodder for future unfolding. 

It’s an enduring feeling like you’ve been harbouring an unbeknownst secret and you’ve finally be caught red-handed with it. Know it? Got it? Hate it? You’re not alone.

What compounds this feeling like you’re on borrowed time, is WhatsApp. The wizardly communication tool where the most personal exchanges transpire akin to being sat across from each other. It’s a joy for expats whose social circles consists of a bevvy of time bands with friends here, there and everything in between. Long-distance management is its USP. The app consolidates our most hilarious, spontaneous, un-PC and deep conversations. In as much as it is a boon though, it is also a mahoosive ball ache.

The faults of WhatsApp come first and foremost in the lack of its IRLness. In Dubai where you have to squeeze in back-to-back meetings all the live long day, sometimes an extended voice note has no choice but to replace a sit down sesh with that friend you have been trying to hook up with for yonks. That’s all well and good but the more our relationships stray into the virtual zone, the more we lose out on the nuance of conversation (i.e. gestures – no, emojis cannot and will never usurp some of my friends’ epic facial expressions) and discrepancies ensue. Ending a ‘haha’ with a full stop denotes underlying tones of passive-aggression, while a misplaced smiley face could be read as sarcasm. My pet peeve is ‘Ok’ – I start questioning my very existence when an ‘Ok’ follows a large ream from my end. Sometimes an ‘Ok’ literally just means ‘Ok’.

Take for example a WhatsApp group between thick friends. You’re all on the same page around the dinner table – or at least you have the certainty of face value – but our spoken vs. written tone can be vastly different.

The opening anecdote is case and point. This particular friend envelopes you with gooeyness in the flesh but digital her is more Vivienne Kensington than Elle Woods and despite knowing said friend for a while, it still throws me off especially when I’m the type to postface everything with: ❤❤❤

I’ve had the grave misfortune of reading into the subtext of a brief conversation waaaaay more than is necessary and catastrophising that I’ve instigated the makings of a misunderstanding. Sometimes we forget that WhatsApp convos happen while life is happening at rapid fire speed and the person in question who has left you with a disproportionate amount of nail biting fear is simply not thinking about the words they’re using in the same way you’re interpreting them while you’re sat in full focus at home with no other stimulus to distract you.

Mounting this stress is the pressure to reply straight away to be ‘in’ – especially if in a big group chat situation. It’s literally like a toddler is tugging at my sleeve needing attention. Most mornings I wake up to a litany of chat that’s happened in the hours I’ve been asleep and the catch up is daunting.

Can we also talk about the evil that is the blue ticks – the not so benign things that increase jealousy, anxiety, and suspicion? For the record I’ve long since eliminated mine because I can’t deal with the below situation:

Ignorance is most certainly bliss when you’re in way too deep. Sometimes you need to give your overburdened brain some respite otherwise you’ll be endlessly locked into a vicious cycle of chat anxiety.

Whilst group chats might be the perfect place to celebrate news about a new job, confirm plans and share life-defining memes, it’s no replacement for more personal interactions. Whenever I’ve felt that we have sacrificed the quality of our communication in favour of quantity, I take it IRL to iron out the creases in a confusion-laden WhatsApp chat. Friendships are handwork, made even more tricky when the encrypted cr** of digital communication takes over.

A few weeks ago I asked to see a friend IRL following some WhatsApp weirdness. All that was seemingly said and done on WhatsApp was unsaid and undone over chai in a cosy corner of a cafe, putting to bed the momentary minefield I couldn’t navigate online. Just like I can’t convert to Kindle over a tactile book, social media will never forged a friendship better than the live input of a fully fleshed out, emotive human being.