We Analysed Passive-Aggressive Flatmate Group Chats
A relationships expert told us what was going on in some of the deeply awkward screenshots we were sent.
Yes, as a generation, we might never own a home. Yes, we might be living with acquaintances from university well into our thirties, a bit like Friends, but much, much sadder. Yes, to attain the luxury of living alone we might have to settle for a £700 pcm converted utility room in Enfield. But at least, millennials, we have the joys of the shared-house group chat to tide us over until the housing market collapses and we can all buy homes at the same prices our parents paid 30 years ago.
These house chats can be based on Messenger, or WhatsApp, or – if you live with a load of paranoid back-end developers or aspiring ISIS members – encrypted messaging app Telegram. But the common theme is that they are awful: a digital hellhole of fury about minor domestic concerns.
Maybe someone has broken a plate or left some tomato sauce on the hob. Maybe a load of laundry has been left in the machine, or someone has done that thing where instead of washing their pan and plate and cutlery as if not's literally the easiest thing in the world, they've just piled it up and sort of squirted some Fairy liquid vaguely at it. Maybe, over many months, someone has tried to move their boyfriend in, hoping no one notices he's obsessed with showering a baffling number of times per day, and insists on getting water all over the floor every single time and never once contributing to the bills. Whatever the cause of the battle, the group chat is where it plays out.
This, of course, can create tension. And because many of us are living in a state of suspended adolescence, we don't have the emotional tools necessary to deal with that tension.
Chanelle Sowden is a trained psychotherapeutic counsellor who examines the breaking of patterns and the transforming of relationships. With the help of some friends, I collated a series of house-chat screenshots showing common passive-aggressive interactions, and asked Chanelle to help me understand the behaviours at play.
Situation One: Food 'Sharing'
One of the classic aggy house-chat triggers is the breaking of trust re: food. Here, we have one person realising that a flatmate has snuck into their supplies and taken two packets of crisps, followed by the thief emptying 100 litres of petrol over an old wooden barn ("I would aprciate if you calmed down") and then hurling a Molotov directly through a window ("I'd politely request an apology at this point").
This is a tough one to read, as I've been on both sides. If you replace someone's food after eating it, who cares. But equally: do not fucking go within breathing distance of my Lunchables.
In this case, the victim goes in hard, confronting the perpetrator by name and swearing at them, before the victim boldly asks for an apology. It's a thrilling exchange to observe.
Examining the text, Sowden's first thoughts are that "this is a group conversation, making their disagreement public, which may contribute to a larger, unconscious game playing out about public shaming". She adds that it reminds her of a "parent-child dynamic", and credits person two for not retaliating to being called a child. Instead, by asking for an apology, "this seems to diffuse or at least stop the argument from escalating any more".
Congratulations, person two, you may have won this one!
Situation Two: Vent-ville
This is more straight up aggressive than pass-agg, and what makes it doubly bleak is that the group appears to be being used solely for complaints and is utterly barren of any kind of positivity. While I've been involved in some fairly unpleasant house-group arguments, there's always at least one heroic, well-meaning friend who tries to diffuse the anger. Here, there is nothing of the sort.
Much like chat one, Sowden tells me there is a public shaming arena-experience here.
"This example of a group chat demonstrates how people can talk 'at' people, without asking questions or assuming positive intent in others, and on the other end how people can easily not engage with this method of communicating simply by not replying," she says. Unlike in the first chat, she points out that there are no argumentative responses in this thread, and in their place a "lack of emotional warmth". According to Sowden, "Just as a softness in body language or a smile can help in face-to-face communication, it is possible to recreate these types of subliminal messages through text with the use of jokes, affection, emojis or concern."
I honestly feel sorry for everyone living in this house.
Situation Three: The Courts Have Issued a Punishment
Here, we have an example of a group-chat car crash: from casual Love Island chat and weekend plan-making, we take a swift left turn directly into a wall. Person one comes in angry. Soon, person two is in and they're angry, too. Now, we have Two Angry People.
Examining the messages, Sowden tells me this is a "very one-sided" exchange, and there is already some distance from the event, as it happened the night before. "There is a lot of information in an almost ranting style, which can sometimes be more common to a feminine manner of needing to share than a masculine style, which may be more solution-orientated and less focused on the details of the problem."
She points out that "the whole conversation seen takes place in under four minutes, which shows it is unfolding rapidly for the two people taking part, and if it continues at this fast rate it may be valuable considering how someone unavailable will experience picking up their phone and needing to join in later along the thread".
She suggests the two talking together could create an exclusionary feeling for anyone wanting to interject later on in the day. So, top tip: don't do this if you want to get anything solved.
Situation Four: The Attack
This one reminds me of an old flatmate of mine who gaslit everyone I lived with into believing they were the cleanest person in the house, purely by complaining about the mess the whole time, even though they simply were not. It features passive aggression, emotional blackmail, threats and the odd apology thrown in for good measure. Reading this made every single part of my being involuntarily seize up.
Sowden tells me that, instead of a child, this message reminded her of a teenager defending themselves against a parent: "There is a larger focus on the relational aspects and negative ways in which they communicate than on the actual topic of housekeeping and the solutions."
With this being one message and not a conversation, she notes that there is the capacity for things to "escalate or feel more intense much quicker". On the other hand, messaging aggressively is much easier, as "there is also a level of detachment that can take place when typing because you don’t have to physically deal with the presence of the actual person in any way".
Mind you, they did say "goodnight", so that's nice.
Are house group chats as pointless as they are irritating? Can't we just do without them? They can turn your friends into enemies, and turn you into a prick. One time, a flatmate of mine cried and ran to her room after we gathered in a group to talk about why the cleaning rota wasn't working. It took two days to collectively get over it, and we haven't spoken about it since.
From a relationship point of view, Sowden isn't a fan, and says – despite the fact they can be "direct, time effective and create an immediate sense of community when people are not physically together" – they should never be used as a substitute for actual face-to-face communication.
"When typing things to someone not physically present, it may be helpful to check and ask yourself, 'Would I say this to their face if they were here?' If the answer is no, it may be that you're hiding behind the detached elements of messaging communication," she says.
Problem is, most of us are terrified of confrontation and so would never speak about anything even remotely awkward face-to-face, so bad news: we're all destined to continue dealing with these kind of scenarios until we either die or save enough money for a deposit. Got a problem with that? WhatsApp me.