Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
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Dear Swipe This!
I struggle consistently with ways to maintain boundaries. I feel like advancements in technology, especially in group communication platforms, mean that I am reachable at all times by a million people. Unless I throw my phone in the river, I am always supposed to be available.
Last week I went to see a movie alone and when I left the theater, I had 85 messages from various threads—none of them an emergency, thank goodness. But I felt completely overwhelmed.
I love my friends, but this level of near-constant communication feels unmanageable to me and I’m struggling to find a solution. Can I step away from these conversations without offending people? And if I do step away, will I lose my connection to these groups?
I used to consider myself a textbook extrovert, but I have developed a more nuanced relationship with group dynamics as I age. I enjoy a mix of big groups and one-on-one time. But my relationship to alone time is fraught. I frequently struggle with carving out boundaries for it—even when I run into someone on the train, I can’t just gracefully turn away and go back to reading my book in peace. Because of my schedule and living with a partner, maybe that’s why I crave alone time so much. Once I have it, though, I sometimes feel restless, which is why I enjoy a mind-occupying solo activity like a movie or a play or plant shopping.
I’m also from a big family, and family dynamics definitely play into my understanding of communication and how it relates to intimacy. I think I feel left out easily because withholding information is a power move in my family, so I struggle with wanting to maintain privacy and boundaries while also wanting to know everything that’s going on with everyone. It’s bad!
I don’t want to isolate myself from friends, but the deluge of messages sometimes makes me feel resentful of people who are just trying to be caring or share their thoughts with me. Do you have advice for managing these feelings, or are they just a part of the modern age?
Should I throw my phone in a river?
Always on Call
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Dear Always on Call,
Have you ever been to a club where the music is a touch too loud? At first, it can be energizing. Everyone is dancing and moving, and when you let yourself get lost in that noise, you start to feel connected and exhilarated. But that kind of high isn’t sustainable. And there comes a point in the night when all that thumping bass starts to feel more draining than uplifting. The flashing lights start to make your eyes hurt and you crave a quiet cab ride home.
Group messaging reminds me of one of those clubs. When your friends are on a tear, it can feel like pure joy. Who doesn’t want to laugh and connect and share? But in the wrong moment, it can feel downright oppressive. There’s a very fine line between feeling like you’re at a party you’ve spontaneously chosen to attend and one where you’ve been taken hostage.
The fact is, life with technology is noisy. And in order to feel a sense of ease and peace in our daily routines, most of us need spaces where we can turn down the volume and ease into silence. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, there’s no human I know who doesn’t benefit from quiet. And once we’ve gotten that quiet, it’s probably preferable to ease back into our noisy modern world. No one wants to come out of a peaceful space and be greeted with blaring sirens. So I can understand how bumpy your landing must have felt when you exited that movie theater and were greeted with an onslaught of messages.
It sounds to me like you already know what you want to do. You want to scale back. You need more quiet. But you’re having trouble giving yourself permission to really access that space.
One of the things that struck me about your letter is you mention your relief that no one messaged you about an emergency. You also express so much empathy for the people whom you interact with. This makes me think that you are a tremendously caring friend. It also makes me wonder if you have a heightened sense of responsibility. When we’re hyper-responsible, we develop relationships where people rely on us and sometimes that can feel great. We feel needed and valued. We matter. We are capital “I” Important—not just to one person, but to an entire group of people.
But it’s a double-edged sword because if you build your worth around being needed, you can easily start to feel trapped. Suddenly, you’re not choosing to show up for your friends; you’re obligated to be on call at all times. And even the simple act of engaging in a humorous conversation can feel like yet another chore. Your life no longer feels like it belongs to you and so, of course, you want to retreat into a dark theater or a plant shop where you’re surrounded by peaceful living things that can neither speak nor make demands.
I think as you decide how to engage with these groups what will make the most difference is not questions about “Will I feel lonely?” or “Will I miss out?” but really getting a deeper understanding of how you view your own role. Defining your role is up to you, but I have two guiding principles you may want to apply as you move forward: 1) It’s not your job to manage the group. 2) It’s not your job to manage their individual reactions or feelings.
I’m not suggesting you should turn cold. You can care very deeply for others without taking on responsibility for their emotional well-being. There’s a big difference between caring for people and attempting to manage or control their lives. And since, ultimately, we can only be responsible for ourselves, you shouldn’t feel guilty doing things that are in the interest of taking care of you.
Maybe you played peacemaker in your family. Maybe you had to be the “grown up,” or maybe you got a ton of validation for being the sibling others could always “count on,” but you’ve got a right to carve out a new role that feels healthier to you. And you can only do that if you give yourself permission to put your own needs first without imagining any catastrophic fallout. It’s possible that someone will be offended or miss you. And that’s OK—healthy friendships aren’t built on pleasing others 100 percent of the time. The best friendships I have are built on heaps of forgiveness, generosity, and patience. So give yourself these—it sounds like you have them to spare for others in spades.
As a practical matter, you should know that in addition to setting your phone to airplane mode or “do not disturb,” you can turn off notifications for your group messaging apps. In iMessage, you also have the option of hiding alerts for specific group threads. Once you do so, a small moon should appear next to that thread. If you want to dip out of a conversation without actually “leaving” the conversation, you can do so and return at your leisure. Rest assured that your friends will be there when you return. And if someone in particular needs to get ahold of you, they can reach out to you directly.
You have a right to silence. And you shouldn’t have to throw your phone in a river to get it.