It was December 2020, and Martha Midkiff was sick and nervous. She was so nervous, it was making her sick. No — she was sick and it was making her nervous.
She had a cough. A bit of a fever. Given the ongoing pandemic, her first concern was that she’d contracted COVID-19. She was worried about the potential health repercussions for herself — but also, about receiving judgment from her group chat.
Early last autumn, Midkiff, 25, and four other friends formed a “COVID pod.” It was nice to be able to see the other members in person without stressing too much about her safety, but integral to the pod was the group chat they used to make plans, send memes, and offer up emotional support on tough days. By the time she began to suspect she’d somehow gotten COVID-19, she’d grown attached to the chat — and worried that disclosing a positive diagnosis might cause insurmountable friction within the group that had given her solace over the past several months. And she didn’t want to stress anyone out.
She worked up the gumption to text her group that she was feeling under the weather, and at first, no one seemed too fazed. They assured her that she was most likely fine. But three days later, Midkiff’s COVID test came back positive. Again, one of her first thoughts was of her group text. She was so nervous to tell everyone that she even called her mum — “She told me to just be honest because good friends are not going to be judgy or rude.”
In her bed in her cosy apartment, Midkiff crafted “a million drafts” of a text to her friends letting them know to get tested. “I felt like I was breaking up with someone,” she says. “I felt the need to be transparent, but was also feeling a lot of guilt and was stressed out about being the person to bring this in and ruin the group.”
She settled on a text, hit send, and waited.
Midkiff isn’t alone in her attachment to her pandemic group chat. Over the past year of illness and isolation, group chats have become a lifeline for many of us. Whether we’re chatting through iMessage, WhatsApp, or Snapchat, these collective riff sessions can offer us levity, a place to vent, and a fairly low-pressure way to stay in touch.
“You would think that the video calls would have been the thing that sustained us, but we’ve gotten so worn out — the Zoom fatigue is real,” says Carla Bevins, PhD, an assistant teaching professor of business communication at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business with expertise in group chats and interpersonal communication. “It takes a lot of cognitive processing to be on a Zoom call, you have to listen to the other person, dissect their body language through a screen, while also processing the reflection of your own image.” The best kinds of group chats don’t require the same kind of attention. You can participate as little or as much as you want. You always feel included. You get the inside jokes. And you can pick and choose when you want to engage. It doesn’t matter if you were too exhausted to respond to the meme your friend sent 12 hours ago — someone else can chime in, and you can pick up the thread again later.
Another perk of the group chat: It can replace the hard-to-define, but vital mini-relationships we had pre-COVID. “The pandemic eliminated the 20-second conversations we had in our daily lives,” Dr Bevins explains. Many of us aren’t able to say hello to the receptionist at our office every morning anymore, or linger to chat with our next-door neighbours as much as we once did. “It cut those connections, and we didn’t realise they were so valuable,” Dr Bevins says. The seemingly frivolous communications in our group chats — sharing a TikTok video or saying “have a great Monday, gang” — mimic the everyday interactions that gave us joy pre-COVID.
“The thing about group chats is that they can be meaningful without being that deep,” says Jim Jackson, PsyD, a psychologist and the assistant director of The ICU Recovery Centre at Vanderbilt University. “In ours, we do frequent check-ins and send each other encouraging comments. Instead of, ‘How are you?’ when we know people might not be doing well, we say things like, ‘Thinking of you all today,’ or ‘I’m here for you guys,’ or ‘I’ve got your back.’ Pithy, frequent conversations can help people engage without getting overwhelmed.”
“The thing about group chats is that they can be meaningful without being that deep.”
Jim Jackson, Psychologist
Fatima Subhani, 19, a student in California, agrees that chats don’t have to be that substantive or overly emotional to have benefits. She believes that her friends’ group chat, called Tea Time, “saved her” during the pandemic, helping her stay connected even when her high school graduation was cancelled and her freshman year of college happened remotely. “We all have the same sense of humour, so the stupidest TikTok can make us laugh like crazy on a day when we’re struggling,” she says.
Although Dr Jackson and Subhani rely on their group chats for laughter, they can provide more serious, practical support as well. For example, my family used a group chat to stay in touch when my uncle was put on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19. When he asked to be taken off the machine before his death, most of my family found out via text, which for us became the best way to communicate hard-to-process information widely. We could then take our time to respond thoughtfully, while grieving in our own spaces.
We’re not the only ones. Hafsa Akram, MD, a doctor based in Tucson, AZ, used a WhatsApp chat throughout the pandemic to keep in touch with her former med school classmates from Pakistan. They commiserated and compared notes with each other during the early days of COVID-19, when hospitals were overwhelmed and there was mixed information about how to handle the virus. This helped, as many of Dr Akram’s classmates were working in different health systems around the world. Meanwhile, some shared news of their parents being hospitalised or passing away from the deadly virus. “We used our group chat to show we were there for each other — even if we couldn’t be there in person,” Dr Akram says.
Nitika Chopra, a 39-year-old New Yorker, turned to her group chat for solace after the Atlanta shootings in mid-March, when eight people — including seven women, six of them Asian — were killed. “Two of us in my group are South Asian and members of the AAPI community, and everyone else in the group is a woman of colour or an ally,” she says. “It was just so heavy, and there’s obviously a lot of grief that came from it, but I felt like I could go to that group and just be honest with them. I told them I was struggling and we just loved up on each other.”
When there was a death in her own family, Dr Bevins says her loved ones shared memories and worked through their feelings over group chat. “We’re able to convey our emotions via text much more now than I ever thought was possible,” Dr Bevins says. “You can use emojis, or exclamation points, or no punctuation at all. Group chats have adapted and stretched in ways I would have never expected in the ‘before times’ a year ago.”
After Martha Midkiff sent the text to tell her group chat that she was COVID-positive, she stared up at a collection of photos on her wall — a photo of her family at a party pre-COVID, a painting from her grandmother — feeling miserable and alone. Then, her phone vibrated. The first friend to respond offered support and well-wishes. Soon everyone else messaged, too, offering to bring her any cough sweets or snacks she needed after getting tested themselves. Her group had come through yet again.
“Everyone was super-understanding, and wanted to come help me if they could,” she says. “Ever since, we’ve been more comfortable talking about COVID and addressing it if anyone has any scares. It really opened up the lines of communication in a new way.”
Midkiff, who’s since recovered from COVID-19 and received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine earlier this month, says she and her friends are still using their group chat these days to make plans and share funny TikTok videos. She believes they’ll continue to use it this way over the summer, as the rest of the chat gets vaccinated. All told, “the pandemic has brought us all in the chat a lot closer,” she says. “It’s so bad the pandemic happened, but we’ve all become better friends. I think we’ll use the group chat to make plans over the summer — and for months and years to come.”
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