This article originally appeared on VICE US.
What is it about the phrase “we need to talk” that makes it the most anxiety-inducing text message possible? Few four-word sentences have the power to strike fear into a person’s heart as quickly and efficiently as this bath bomb of anxiety, especially when it’s dropped casually into the placid waters of an ordinary day. Even if two people have been fighting recently, a “we need to talk” can feel jarring. It’s a harbinger of some sentiment that simply cannot be conveyed via cellular device… No, it must be a “talk,” one that “we need to” have.
Anyone who’s ever received a “we need to talk” message can testify to its disruptive, day-ruining power. Just try to focus on having a normal one while you’ve been SMSed this nugget of malice and mystique. It’s scientifically (well, not technically, but still!) impossible. Forbes argued in 2015 that it may also be difficult to say “we need to talk,” because anyone who is saying that is probably feeling pretty anxious and stressed themselves. OK, sure—it’s basically just a baton-passing of anxiety and bad feelings. Ostensibly, “we need to talk” prepares the recipient for a difficult conversation rather than blindsiding them. In reality, by texting “we need to talk,” the sender gets to telegraph the fact that they have something upsetting to say without having to bear the full brunt of the recipient’s upset reaction.
The worst part is, there’s an extremely easy fix for this that doesn’t involve anyone spending their lunch break anxiously dry-heaving or writing a five-paragraph essay on iMessage: Just give a quick, sentence-long summary of what it is that “we” need to talk about. That’s it! We need to talk about what you said to Jen at my birthday party, we need to talk about the future, we need to talk about how you kept using my Uber account after I logged in on your phone because mine was dead, whatever. Arming someone with a concrete point to reflect on, rather than forcing them to review every single thing they’ve said to or about you since the beginning of time, makes for a more productive conversation. You could also avoid this mess entirely but just… talking to them about the thing you want to talk about when you want to talk about it. I’m unconvinced the advance warning really helps anyone involved.
The only situation where a “we need to talk” is quasi-acceptable is when someone has blatantly wronged you, in which case the talkee a) already knows what you’re going to bring up, and b) might benefit from a little time on the edge of their seat. The cruelty, if not completely justified, has precedent. But, in that case, why play yourself by playing games? Just dump their ass over text. If both parties aren’t listening to each other, then whatever kind of relationship you’re in isn’t healthy, which means “we” really don’t “need to talk” anyway
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