Health

How to Argue With a Friend Over Text

Take this opportunity to present the composed version of yourself, rather than word-vomit your emotions into a text box.
August 24, 2020, 3:08pm
Illustration of two people at debate podiums, one is texting on her phone
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
How we're adjusting our routines, habits, and mindsets for a new normal.

How to Argue With Anyonea guide to getting what you want without making enemies, is part of our series The Way Back to School.

During a radio interview recently, I heard a restaurant critic pine so deeply for the shoulder-bumping dining experience, she said she’d give everything just to wait for an hour, in a crowded vestibule, for a table. So many illogical, hassling experiences seem like heaven now. My heart bursts at the thought of a packed escalator. Each time I remember something human and awful, it’s likely I think: What I wouldn’t give to do something horrible in person again.

But no matter how desperate I am, I don’t miss arguing in person. To be fair, I didn’t do it much before. With exceptions for my partner or my family, I haven’t had an in-person quarrel in years. When my friends and I fight, it’s over text.

Of course, friends are self-selecting by nature, so I write this unsure if other friendships are so well-suited to text-fights. But in my friendships, sorting out our little issues over chat has been the most fruitful way for us to communicate. The little notch of removal keeps things cool and clear-headed, and cuts down on time that we’re feeling tumultuous.

If someone made a quick-yet-unnecessary friend error, someone can send a quick-yet-necessary text to clear the air.

One thing I value about the texting scene for arguments: it’s immediate. I am but a child of my era, and I want the things I want right now. If I owe someone an apology, it sits on the back of my neck like a screaming/crying bird until I am allowed to send it off to its rightful recipient. Texting is often the quickest way to settle things up. Especially if the problem is in the misunderstanding category (for example: if you didn’t invite a very cherished friend to a thing that you knew this friend didn’t want to go to, but a mutual friend was going too, so this friend really should have been invited, even it if would be met by a quick ‘nah! thanks!’).

When things fester, they get more tender and trickier to navigate. A person could exhaust themselves running through various hypotheticals about why someone wounded them. Instead, a person could just cut all that waiting out. Use the text-fight to rip the Band-Aid off/put the Band-Aid on immediately! Just bite that bullet and say via text, with minimal hedging, that you want to clear things up and text it out.

Don’t furiously, knee-jerk reply; read carefully and take your time to think it through.

Over text, each new piece of information arrives and stays exactly as it was, unlike pesky sounds which float away with no proof. When you receive a new missive from your counterpart, you can actually absorb it. Sulking in front of a person you're arguing with has repercussions (often, my kind-generous friends will instinctually try to comfort anyone sad, which isn’t fair at all). If we’re texting, I can scowl away, and then, crucially, I can re-read the messages, after which I’ll realize things aren’t as dire or critical as I had initially interpreted.

Take this opportunity to present the composed version of yourself, rather than word-vomit your emotions into a text box.

Last summer, I was staying with a friend in Portland and I was not being a very good friend-guest. As I remember it, I was absent for long drinks-dates with other friends in town, after which I’d come back late and hungry. When my trip ended, I knew my friend wasn’t happy with me. Very brave and also impatient, I texted her once I was back home to ask how she was feeling about our visit. Probably peak annoyed with me, she wrote back quickly, with a list of grievances. Alone, I could read her concerns once, after which I would EMOTE DRAMATICALLY in the privacy of my own home. The private space to snarl and furrow defensively was enough, I didn’t need that to be part of our conversation.

And, as anyone who has typed and deleted and typed and deleted knows, you can see your responses getting magically more considerate with each new draft. Good responses can take a few tries. (Though, I think you’re really in a conversation, there’s some value in keeping a flow going without too long of a pause between responses. If things are feeling stilted or unfocused, you can always re-route and ask to talk on the phone about it.) There’s taking time so you can process and taking time so you can avoid, and only one of those is cool to do to a friend.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or confused by your friend’s responses, call in the trusted advisors.

To bolster our social impulses, both petty and considerate, the gods granted us the ability to screenshot. I found this particularly helpful when I had a little spat a few years ago with a friend who was always repurposing our friend-dates into something that benefited her. Suddenly we were going to a show she needed to see for work. Suddenly we were having drinks at a B-minus wine bar, so she could pick up her dry-cleaning across the street. Early into our text argument about this, she wasn’t particularly understanding, so I started to ease up and retract my complaints.

Then I sent screenshots to a semi-objective third party, who encouraged me to maintain my ground. While my friend explained away each individual action, the outside voice (or, probably, three outside voices) reminded me that I could ask to be treated differently, etc. etc. Without them, I might have wimped out of the argument—and then gotten fiery and resentful and weird when my friend tried to pull some bullshit again and drag me to her boss’s partner’s product launch last minute. I do believe that screenshots are mostly used for evil, and they’re always a little rude, but sometimes you need a little workshop to get it right.

None of this is to say that text arguments are more polite or more staid or more mature. Those qualities can be obstacles for arguments! It’s not nicer or anything, it’s just more thought-out. Earlier this year, I read a book concerned with correspondence—Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers—where the author writes about working in an archive. Her “favorite find was a series of letters one of [Norman] Mailer’s mistresses had written him with the salutation—summing up my own feelings—Dear American Shithead.” Arguing in the written word isn’t necessarily the most cautious version of ourselves, but it is often the most eloquent.

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