I’ll bet you texted a friend today. And you probably feel that you have a good sense of how to communicate with them. After all, you’re friends! You understand one another. It’s chill.
OR IS IT?? Maybe you texted the WRONG WAY, with COMPLETE DISREGARD for how to balance your needs and sensitivities with those of your friend. Maybe you should have asked, in detached and clinical language, whether your friend was even READY to receive the kind of message you were to send. This is the theme of recent tweets from several Twitter personalities who have advocated for, uh, let’s call it a more “intentional” manner of social engagement.
It all kicked off a couple weeks ago with a lengthy advice thread, which began like this:
And wound up here:
Now, I can see where Fabello was coming from — healthy boundaries are important to any relationship, as is clarity of responsibilities and limitations. It sure looks as if this friend knew her well enough to make the proper overtures before venting, and there’s nothing to suggest, as some people assumed, that Fabello had replied to them with the “actually at capacity” template, then spent a couple hours tweeting about why she was right to do so.
But because the topic related to the hotly contested meaning of the term “emotional labor,” her posts triggered an avalanche of derision and accusations of sociopathy. Very quickly, the hypothetical rebuff was a “copypasta,” or text meme reproduced in various contexts, from the Bible to the horror movie Midsommar to the therapist’s office. Mashable called the proposed response “especially cold.” Another blogger claimed it had “divided thousands of women.” Psychiatrists debated the strategy. And it turned out the discourse on pre-packaged friend memos was just heating up.
This scenario seemed less hypothetical and a bit more fraught. Somewhat reversing Fabello’s conundrum of how to support a friend while dealing with your own stress, it presents a case of hinting at a painful revelation before dropping it. Again, I’m sure this works fine for those involved (otherwise, why the heart reaction?), yet the tweet went in a scolding direction — people who don’t get consent before dumping possibly hurtful information are problematic aggressors. That blanket prescriptivism, I think, is what rubbed many the wrong way this time, since it doesn’t allow any space for the reality of infinite and diverse connections. Others speculated what mental anguish this would be for anyone suffering from anxiety, or how one could plausibly answer “no” and go on with their day as this dreadful mystery dangled in mind.
Things didn’t end there, however. The rule of threes delivered:
Here was the point where folks assumed a joke or parody. It wasn’t. The eruption of memes after the earlier tweets had muddled the ironic riffs on the consent texts with the earnest requests to use them, and finally, perhaps inevitably, we arrived at the “is it cool if I’m directly horny at you” formulation.
Once more, it appeared to work well in the given example, which is great! Two people with a mutual attraction, doing their stuff. The baffling part, as ever, was the extrapolation from the personal encounter to universal. The judgment in each study from this new genre of up-close diplomacy is that those of us griping to, confronting or sexting partners or close acquaintances without taking deep inventory of their emotional landscape first are backwards and destructive. It turns out we’re heartless in our failure to perform a vibe check.
Which, in a way, is fair enough. The emotional labor copypasta meme makes sense as one of the last memes of this decade, since the past 10 years have wrought mass trauma and this unnavigable digital world. We’re currently delicate if not already shattered. The instinct to ask “Are you okay?” is entirely natural and commendable. Yet in seeking to give us the tools to be kinder to or better cognizant of those we love, these arbiters of psychic etiquette lay bare the inadequacy of their method.
For starters, it’s hard to imagine these exchanges playing out in spoken conversation, though some of the topics in play clearly deserve that level of intimacy — something you will never get in texts. Another issue is plain overthinking. A number of Twitter users said they find these templates handy given the challenges of being on the autism spectrum; there is no doubting that individual experience. The resentment comes from people who have the option of assessing their friends’ moods in breezier, not-quite-so-formal terms, and who don’t like hearing that they’ve diminished that person by doing so.
Finally, these semi-automated messages open the door to a future where we all sound like bots:
Such sterile, procedural dialogue is, you realize, an attempt to reduce harm and mess in a civilization that has plenty of both. But it also wants to evade uncomfortable truths as to how humans imperfectly function and learn — not to mention the value of considering and intuiting, for yourself, the best practices in strengthening interpersonal bonds. And by screenshotting these chats for the whole internet to scrutinize (I assume they got consent for that, too!), the copypasta writers tend to assert a moral authority in areas where it doesn’t apply. They have no idea what texts you and I are writing, so why do they pretend otherwise?
It’s odd to disclose your private correspondence to make an argument against a different, theoretical correspondence you haven’t even seen. Meanwhile, if it’s their own friends who will not abide these strict rules of colloquy, they can take it up with them directly, via text if they prefer.
Only after they’ve agreed to endure the critique, of course.