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Home / Brunch / This Indian Life by Shoba Narayan: On conquering WhatsApp addiction

This Indian Life by Shoba Narayan: On conquering WhatsApp addiction

Tips and tricks for the most common instant messaging problems

brunch Updated: Dec 07, 2019 23:50 IST
Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times
WhatsApp is like flying blind. It expunges context and exaggerates tone
WhatsApp is like flying blind. It expunges context and exaggerates tone(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)

Abhijit (Bobby) Bose, the head of WhatsApp India is a gracious man whose easy smile belies a sharp analytical mind. Having known him socially, I approached him last week with a crushing problem. I wanted him – the head of WhatsApp India – to help me conquer my WhatsApp addiction. While the irony of the question didn’t escape him, he gamely texted me on WhatsApp naturally: “My main advice (that works for me when I can do it) is to try NOT to look at WhatsApp for the first hour after waking up. I drop the boys off to the school bus and (rarely but sometimes) go for a run before picking up the phone and checking messages.”

Bobby’s advice echoes what productivity experts have been saying for years. Don’t check your smartphone in the early hours of the day. Answer emails in the afternoon. My morning routine is the opposite of Bobby’s advice. I roll out of bed, reach for my phone and check messages. What if the world has fallen apart while I sleep? What if Trump is impeached?

Smartphone addiction has been written about a lot. WhatsApp has taken it to a whole new level. It seems to be the preferred mode of communication for most Indians. My tailor sends blouse patterns on it. The vegetable vendor sends a photo of the neem flowers I love when they appear on the market. I conduct conversations with four different family groups on it.

How many WhatsApp groups do you belong to? How many WhatsApp groups should you belong to? Do you allow notifications or do you keep them on mute? What are your time-sinks? How can you use WhatsApp effectively?

The tone problem: Yesterday, I was on WhatsApp with a bunch of close friends. We were trying to get one of them to celebrate her birthday and she was insisting on paying for everything. After two days of back and forth, I wrote, “Sheila, stop it yaar. Bas karo (enough). Relax and let go. Let us handle this.”

How many times have you said, “Stop it, yaar,” to people? Mumbaikars say this all the time. But once I wrote and sent the message, it sounded rude and shrill. Thankfully, someone else in the group wrote, “Dearest Sheila: paying for everything is a very generous gesture but please accept this birthday celebration from us.” Followed by lots of love emojis.

The ubiquity and frequency of WhatsApp messages give us the illusion of closeness

The problem with a WhatsApp text is that it doesn’t detect tone of voice. It allows you to forget who you are speaking to since the audience is largely invisible. In that sense, WhatsApp is like flying blind. It expunges context and exaggerates tone. Unlike a face-to-face conversation where you are constantly making adjustments to your message based on how the other person responds, typed messages offer no visual or auditory feedback. You cannot soften or cushion the message when the other party raises an eyebrow. You cannot back-pedal when her face tells you that you’ve put your foot in your mouth. How then to adjust what you say, particularly if it is to a group?

The solution: Don’t respond instantly to messages, particularly if the topic is controversial. Let others respond so you get some context. Realise that you don’t always have to jump in with a point of view, particularly with people you don’t know and rarely see (like your old schoolmates).

The happy birthday problem: You know the scene. You are in a college adda on WhatsApp. It is great. A bunch of guys or gals chatting through the day and night via WhatsApp. There is only one problem. If there are 10 of your close friends, the birthdays and anniversaries are continuous. As are the messages of “Happy birthday, Raghav.” How do you solve a problem like “Happy birthday Maria,” times 20 people?

The solution: Use WhatsApp as a creativity tool. Responding to these mindless, endless messages in a creative fashion takes a bit of thought, wit and a fresh mind. Make up a shairi (poetry) for your friend’s birthday message. Or limericks or a pun. Draw a design and send it as a photo. The medium is so flexible that it allows you to sing a song or record a video. Use those options. One friend, Gopal, uses birthdays as a way to connect. He sends a birthday ++ message. He asks about their new job or new move. A milestone can mark a conversation.

Talk: When is the last time you picked up the phone and called a friend? The ubiquity and frequency of WhatsApp messages give us the illusion of closeness. So after seeing a message from a friend saying he’s stressed, why not text him back saying you’ll call him.

And then pick up the phone and call. Or at least leave a voice message.

Note:For Part-1 of this column, Click

For Part-2 of this column, Click

This is the last part of the three-part series on ‘How to use WhatsApp effectively’

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, December 8, 2019

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