Friendship, Texting & Social Media: Is Three a Crowd?
What gives with New York friendship, I wondered to myself. The year was 2009. I sat there staring at my phone, dumbfounded. I wanted nothing more than to see my friend but she didn’t want to come to the west side of Manhattan. Now, we’re talking a total distance of 2.3 miles (the width of the island)—a distance that can be traveled in under 20 minutes by cab or bus. Yet that was too just too much for her on this particular Friday night. It’s not like I was asking her to cross the Sahara Desert in the middle of a sandstorm just to have cocktails. Yet still, getting her to come to Hell’s Kitchen (one of the city’s liveliest neighborhoods, IMO) was an impossible task.
To be fair, there was no way I was leaving my gay mecca for Murray Hill, with all those finance bros and silly sorority girls two seconds removed from college. So, there we were in some kind of text message cold war. Those flickering gray dots in iMessage became a symbol of hostility. She didn’t come to HK. I didn’t go to Broville. And the rest of our friendship played out like that night—ridiculous refusal to travel short distances to hang out, lingering gray dots, read messages without responses. Come to think of it, maybe we weren’t great friends to begin with. Maybe we could’ve come to some type of agreement if we spoke on the phone instead of texting. Maybe this wasn’t a problem exclusive to New York friendship. Maybe texting was the demise of all interpersonal connection. (A touch too dramatic? You’re probably right.)
Text messages have been around for 20 years and somehow friendship is still alive and well. We send more than 8 trillion texts every year, according to Bloomberg. Our texts aren’t going anywhere and neither are our so-called friendships. So, it’s all kumbaya, right? Not so fast…
Texting has become a psychological stressor for all of us, whether it’s a friend, family member, boss or significant other at the other end of the message chain. Elite Daily went all doomsday on us with a 2014 piece about how our smartphones were deconstructing our social abilities one text at a time.
For starters, communicating via text prevents us from understanding tone and seeing non-verbal body language. If you’re a writer like me, that’s no obstacle that a GIF, emoji and perfectly worded response can’t crush. However, most people aren’t writers. And most people end up getting into conflicts because texting is basically an expressionless form of communication. This is why you have people ready to kill each other over a text about a bottle of milk or a dinner reservation.
When we’re not threatening people with horror movie memes, we’re prisoners of our technology. Staring at those gray dots puts us all on edge. Don’t act like you haven’t been there with your phone lodged in your sweaty palm waiting for a response to come through. And when it doesn’t, you feel like the kid who didn’t get asked to prom or the guy who placed fourth at the Olympics. Unanswered text messages are the ultimate letdown.
On the other hand, some people don’t know when to shut the fuck up via text. Answering once locks you into a seven-day text-a-thon that you can’t get out of. Or if you don’t answer, you’re seen as rude. The length of time you take to answer a message gets scrutinized. As does the length of your response in comparison to theirs.
Compared to a good ol’ fashioned phone call or drink sesh, texting kind of sucks. If it’s ruining us as people, how’s it affecting our friendships?
Writer Nina Badzin thinks texting friends is more efficient. However, the cost of this efficiency is intimacy. Hell, it’s quite possible we may have a friends list half-filled with people who don’t even like us. Without voice communication or in-person meetups, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between our friends and our acquaintances.
That makes sense if your close friends communicate with you the same way complete strangers do.
Let’s say you’ve won an award: Employee of the Month/Quarter/Year/Whatever. You take to your Instagram story to share it because you’re proud. Your admirers (followers) send tons of congrats your way. Your best friend, Amiga, comments on your story “Congrats!”, fire emoji, 100 emoji, prayer emoji, thumbs up emoji, party hat and streamers emoji. It feels great to be acknowledged but shouldn’t Amiga call you instead? Not all those other people. But Amiga? Yeah, you were expecting something more from her.
Who’s wrong here? Should you be upset that your best friend didn’t call you to speak directly about this major development? OR should Amiga be upset because you didn’t tell her about it first before sharing it with your 532 Instagram followers? This is where texting and digital communication get tricky.
Sure, I think it’s common sense that you’d call your friends and tell them directly about an engagement or a baby or an unexpected international move. But is it okay to talk about everything else via text? Is a texting only friendship still a friendship? If you can’t see me roll my eyes when you tell me the same story for the 405th time, how do I know that we’ve still got something special?
When I think about my own friendships and the role that texting plays in them, I find that digital conversations can leave me in deep, murky water. That’s not a place I like to be. I don’t need to talk on the phone every day. In fact, other than my mother, the automated pharmacy system or the receptionist at my chiropractor, I don’t really talk to people on the phone. But when it comes to my friends, people I consider an important, non-negotiable part of my social circle, I see them in person. We may text between dinners. (You know, New Yorkers are busy, and though we all live within the same city, weeks and sometimes months can pass between get-togethers. Whether or not that’s acceptable is a whole other essay.) But we see each other in person. And we talk on the phone when big shit goes down. Someone loses their job, goes through a breakup, has a death in the family—I’m not finding out about that via text or IG.
With people that I haven’t seen in years or others that I’m just not that close to, I have no problem keeping our communication exclusive to text or social media. For acquaintances, that level of interaction is more than appropriate. But for someone who lives in the same city as me and considers themselves a close friend, don’t you dare text me or DM me to talk about serious things. Especially if I haven’t seen you or heard your voice in ages. I think most of my friends know this. (If you don’t know, now you know.)
I’m not old school or anything. I love the immediacy modern technology has brought to communication between friends. If there’s an incident in the city, like last year’s Chelsea bombing, I can let people know I’m alright and account for my friends within minutes. I appreciate that and quite frankly don’t know how I’d live without it.
But when digital communication replaces human interaction, I think the friendship is in trouble. If 98% of your communication with a close friend or best friend is text-only, your friendship might be on a lifeboat with a hole in the bottom.
That friend who wouldn’t hop in a cab and venture over to the west side of the city eventually moved to another state without texting or calling. I have a strong feeling that, if texting wasn’t even a part of the equation, I would’ve been at her going away party. I know where I stand with her now. But I think of some of the people in my life at this moment, people with whom I find myself entangled in a similar dubiousness about the state of our relationship, and I want to throw my iPhone out a window. Maybe texting isn’t ruining friendship. But it’s sure as hell making it harder.