Keep Your Group Chats Small — or It Could Ruin You

Big group chats create unnecessary chatter, and anxiety

Photo: Adem AY/Unsplash

Poor Heidi Cruz. In her attempt to liberate herself from the devastating and deadly historic storm in Texas, where her husband Ted Cruz is a senator, she discovered something terrible: There is a mole in her group chat.

After Ted Cruz was caught at the airport flying to Cancún in the midst of the disaster, he told reporters that his children had asked him to take them on a trip. But within just a few hours someone leaked texts from a group chat that included Heidi. The apparently not-so-lovely group chat of 11 people is (or was) titled “Lovelies.” And the text revealed that in fact, the trip appeared to be Heidi’s idea.

A relatively large group chat is, clearly, a terrible idea for a public figure concerned at all about discretion. But what about for the rest of us? Is an 11-person group chat ever a smart idea? How many is too many before a group chat spirals out of control?

If you want to avoid the kind of friend group-destroying scandal that is surely wreaking havoc on Heidi Cruz’s “Lovelies,” keep it smart and keep it small. Even if your texts may not end up on the nightly news, there are other potential consequences like cognitive overload, strained relationships, and missed communiqués that get lost in the deluge of messages and end up biting you later.

Among group chats’ greatest weaknesses is that, unless your phone is off or you’re out of service, you are always theoretically available to receive, and hence respond, to a message. This is a good thing in case of an emergency. But when we’re being inundated by messages from various screens day-in, day-out, it can quickly become overwhelming. Add a pandemic to the mix, when many folks who work from home are basically assumed to be always available, and the avalanche of texts about the latest drama can become a responsibility to attend to, not a fulfilling conversation with low stakes.

Because group chats can occur at any time of the day or night, they require continuous decision-making that isn’t as present in real-life interactions, according to David Neumann, PhD, a professor of communication at Rochester Institute of Technology. “The person needs to make a choice on whether to be part of the conversation or continue on with what they are doing at the moment,” he says. “This can cause a good deal of stress.”

You can jump in on a topic later, but if the group has moved on, it will be awkward and strange, he says. This means that if you want to talk about drama with your group chat, you either need to participate right away — even if you’re trying to finish a draft, or send an email to your grandma, or make dinner with your spouse — or miss out completely. Smaller groups have fewer voices, which means they’re not quite as likely to keep going at a rapid pace.

“Having larger groups creates what’s been called the ‘many minds problem’ — trying to coordinate with lots of people induces cognitive load,” says Juliana Schroeder, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business whose research focuses on different conversation formats. “Any number of people over two starts to create this problem.”

Picture a dinner party — which you will someday again attend, I promise. There are 11 people seated around a table, and it’s a bit loud. There is a hum of music from the speakers overhead, the clattering of dishes, the buzz of voices all contribute to a festive and joyous atmosphere. You’re usually limited to talking with the people seated near you, so you probably won’t be able to participate in the conversation your friends are having at the other end of the table. Yelling would disrupt the entire affair and would be a social faux pas. But in a group chat, all these voices are talking to everyone at once. Maybe one person dominates — and that creates its own complications — but generally, you have a crowd of people who, thinking they aren’t limited by the constraints of physical space, all try to talk at once, transforming a hum into a cacophony.

It’s much easier to have a simultaneous conversation with four people around a table than it is with 11; the same can be said for digital conversations. Two people, at a dinner table or in a text, is an even more manageable number.

More minds, more problems, whether you’re in person or virtual. In a review of the “many minds problem,” researchers found that larger groups have significant consequences for conversations that smaller groups do not. In larger gatherings, some people are more likely to dominate the conversation than others, potentially leading others to feel left out, anxious, and frustrated. Conversations become shorter and less personal, while some people disengage entirely, unwilling or unable to get a word in edgewise.

In person, body language can help communicate to people in your vicinity that you have something to say and is critical to ensuring more equitable speaking time in a group. But there’s no body language in a group chat, and quick reactions, which are supposed to fill in that lack of body language, are a poor substitute. Big group chats, essentially, contain many of the downsides of in-person conversations, with several online-only elements that only make having an in-depth conversation harder.

In a 2016 study on Twitch chats, researchers wanted to understand how conversations were affected as more people joined. They found that as group size increased, conversation quality decreased: People stopped trying to engage, and they copy-and-pasted more responses. Messages that participants did send were shorter and contained less information. The overall quality of the conversation suffered.

“One of the bigger downfalls of too many people in an interaction is that it can be overwhelming,” says Andrew High, PhD, an associate professor of communication at Penn State. “If you’re not paying attention, you can look down and have 50 new texts on your phone.” Some people might not care about this side effect of group chats, High says, but it can really bother others. A 2018 study of group chats on Slack found that people felt like they could never keep up with the volume of incoming messages, and catching up on messages they missed felt next-to-impossible for many. The result is that people may be missing important messages, leading to social and professional repercussions.

Then, there’s the quality of the information shared. “In larger groups, people feel less comfortable disclosing information, particularly private information, because it is considered more socially risky,” says Schroeder. Unlike Heidi Cruz, apparently, people trust large groups less than they trust small groups. And trust is a crucial ingredient in a meaningful conversation; if you don’t feel comfortable with the people you’re talking with, even if it’s about something somewhat innocuous, you’re more likely to be guarded and on-edge than in a small group, where you know — or at least hope — that the people in the group are people with whom you can trust your opinions and disclosures.

This goes beyond conversation leaks, too. Feeling like you won’t be judged or mischaracterized for the things you say is a vital component to a healthy relationship, and, by extension, healthy conversations. But it’s much harder to attain this feeling of social trust in larger groups, which can translate to emptier chats the larger they get.

Maybe I should make my own disclosure here: I’m an introvert. Group dynamics, regardless of the manifestation, make me anxious, which is why I have very few active group chats, even in the pandemic when all other forms of socializing have evaporated. But the science reveals that my anxiety is not that unusual nor is it particularly misguided. I have zero interest in attempting to participate in a 10-person conversation, and for good reason: It’s not usually very fulfilling, for anybody.

Okay, so… how many is too many? “Depending on the cohesion of the group, the number can vary but usually falls within the four- to seven-person range,” says Neumann, accounting for both in-person and virtual group conversations. Jessica Resor, a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech studying group chats within families, says family group chats consist, on average, of six people. While there’s no set number of ideal group chat participants, group chats become harder to manage the bigger they get, she says.

For once, heed the call of the introverts and socially anxious in your life, and keep your group chats on the small side. Your mental capacity, emotional bandwidth, and friendships will be glad you did.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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