How To Make Friends And Influence People On WhatsApp Groups

A Guide To Engaging With WhatsApp Groups

Like you maybe, I'm part of at least one WhatsApp Group in which I don't feel entirely free to be myself. I mostly cope with this situation by not saying much at all, or conversely, by sometimes saying too much. I stay in these groups either out of loyalty, remembered happiness, fondness for the people in them, or for logistical reasons.

Like you maybe, I don't find groups easy. But when there's misinformation, hate speech and divisive content on them, I find it difficult to stay quiet.

Everybody has their own way of dealing with WhatsApp Groups, as I found out a few weeks ago.

I got a number of responses to that tweet, which I summarise into six-pointers below.

  1. People "read, smile, and never reply".
  2. They exit groups.
  3. They switch off notifications, even those notifications which indicate the number of unread messages on the main phone screen (badge notifications).
  4. They mute groups.
  5. They disable automatic downloads of media (photos, videos, PDFs, audiofiles, etc.)
  6. They use a separate WhatsApp number for public groups.

Most of us do a version of the above in some form or the other, often without thinking too consciously about it. We do it out of respect for our mental health or our emotional capacity at that time.

But there are some of us who feel compelled to take part in WhatsApp Group conversations.

As one respondent put it, "I still can't resist challenging the family members who post fake news (but don't advise it as it's exhausting)."

So the main object of this post is really to put together a guide for people like Shilpa Kannan (and me) who find some meaning in wading into debates.

But why do so at all?

We live in heavily polarized times. We don't know what information source to trust. It seems like misinformation ('fake news') is everywhere. Hate speech spreads alarmingly quickly. And it has gotten much more difficult to simply understand the other.

In this situation, I find it easier to speak out than stay silent when there's questionable content being shared in groups.

Strategies for speaking out in WhatsApp groups

1. Use emojis

Tone is a difficult thing to convey while texting, especially when you're disagreeing with someone. As a former copy editor, I am aware that one can convey tone through careful word arrangement, punctuation and editing. But it takes time and places the burden of interpretation on the reader. Emojis are a very effective shortcut. They don't require everyone to be book literate.

I use smiley faces and grinning faces a lot, and also emojis that show that I'm fine with making fun of myself. Such as these: 🙂😀😃😬🙈🤷🏾‍♂️

2. But don't use emojis that are confusing

Some emojis can be interpreted in different ways. To my everlasting irritation, the folded hands emoji—🙏—is used to say 'thank you' but to me, it means 'namaste'. Still, there's little chance of hurting someone with this emoji, so I don't worry.

But use others with care. Some emojis, especially the brinjal/eggplant one—🍆— or the peach one—🍑—have sexual connotations. Depending on the area that you live in, the kissing emoji and the heart emoji which are used to indicate love, can be construed as harassing in other contexts.

Here's a helpful guide to emojis. (It's geared towards men, because we men are not always good with using emojis.)

3. Invest in WhatsApp Groups

If you participate in groups consistently, your views will get more respect. This doesn't mean you need to write in them everyday. Whether it's once a week or once a month, thoughtful posts and responses will always be noticed. On the other hand, if you only write when you want to rail against something, don't expect to get a patient hearing.

4. Wish people on their birthdays

Those who do this anyway will wonder why I have to state this at all. But the fact is, I mostly fall in the camp of people who don't wish others regularly or consistently. I don't do it out of dislike of others, but because it gets too overwhelming for me. Increasingly however, I've started wishing people on their birthdays in groups and have found it to be a pleasant thing to do.

5. Speak up for those who're being bullied

This is a tricky thing to pull off, but bullying is a problem on WhatsApp Groups. Getting the tone right is important here, and also be mindful that you are not being patronising to the person who's being bullied. It's a good practice to ask the person you want to help in a private message if they mind you weighing in.

6. Think of those who're silent

How often have you had or witnessed passionate and fiery conversations on a WhatsApp Group during which a large bunch of people are silent? Whether it's because they didn't read the message or they didn't want to 'rock the boat', think of the silent ones before posting something.

7. Mind your language

Be deliberate in what you say on the group and think twice before letting your anger, indignation or any other emotion dictate what you say. This doesn't mean that you should not let your anger (or any other emotion) speak for itself. Sometimes justice cannot be served without the fuel of anger. Just show your emotions in a way that does not antagonise others.

It's the same thing with language. Each group has its tolerance level for 'bad language'. But if you use cuss words, then be aware that people will respond to your choice of words first and the importance of your message second.

8. Don't jump to judgments and conclusions

It's easy to forget that behind each offensive message is a real person with feelings. Most people are nicer and open to nuance in individual conversations, but in a group setting, their tribal identity tends to take over.

9. Invest in one-on-one connections

Which brings me to the next point. If possible, engage with people offline, and if not, reach out to them in a private message. Potential misunderstandings and grievances are better dealt with privately.

10. Don't make it personal

When pointing out something objectionable, take pains to avoid making it personal. Don't attack the person, rather attack the idea. In other words, avoid ad hominem attacks.

11. Don't engage with trolls

Sometimes, people wilfully misunderstand you despite your best efforts. It becomes apparent that they are not interested in genuine conversation. In that case, it's simply not worth engaging with them.

12. Be yourself

None of the previous points are going to help unless you're yourself. If you're unsure of your position on any issue, be upfront about it. The more you reveal yourself for who you really are, the more people will want to listen to what you have to say.

To this list, we can add a thirteenth: resist the temptation to be a fact-checker. (Unless you're a professional fact-checker or have built up a lot of practice doing so.) This is because fact-checking anything at all takes time and doesn't always lead to definitive conclusions. Rather, your aim should be to get people to think. An easy way to do that is to ask gentle non-confrontational questions. This strategy is in fact, the central aim of media literacy training.

There are a few other strategies you can pursue. In a slightly different context, the New York Times' Charlie Warzel has some ideas in a recent piece titled, How to Talk to Friends and Family Who Share Conspiracy Theories. One of the strategies, he says, is to "create some cognitive dissonance."

I wrote this piece to encourage people to get into otherwise toxic debates with a clear strategy. It's possible that there are other, sensible strategies to take into account. If you have any ideas about this, reply to me or comment here. I will update this piece with the appropriate disclaimers.

Note: This piece was originally published on our Substack website.

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