The Four Types of WhatsApp Behaviors

Are you a disrupter?

Many of you may remember It started in 1997 and has been around in spurts (1997-2002, then 2004 to 2014). This is now a third avatar.

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You have invited some friends over for dinner and drinks. The conversation turns to Covid-19 vaccines and there is an animated discussion on the pros and cons of the different vaccines available. Suddenly one friend pipes up, “I was unhappy that I did not have shoes, until I saw a man with no feet”.

Everyone stops talking, trying to understand what this friend has just said. Then one of you asks, “So this man with no feet took the vaccine?”. And the disrupter says, “Oh no, this uplifting message just came on my phone and I thought I should share it”. All of you look at him like an alien from outer space who doesn’t seem to understand how and when to speak and interject. Being a friend, you take the liberty to curse him for interrupting for no reason and breaking the flow of the conversation and then either continue or move on to something else. 

Now, let’s say the same discussion is animatedly happening on a WhatsApp group. Everyone is chatting and messaging about the vaccine. Suddenly one of the group members posts a forward about the man with no feet and everyone pauses to look at it wondering what relevance it has to the context of the discussion. It turns out there is none. The disrupter thought this was an “uplifting” message that needed to be immediately sent to all those 20 groups they belong to, the existing thread of conversation in those groups be damned. Most of us wouldn’t think much of it, but chances are the conversation would have been killed by this post. No one however would berate this disrupter, unless of course it was a joke in the middle of condolence messages.

Somehow, we don’t think that the same in-person rules of behavior apply to WhatsApp groups and many of us happily keep interrupting and disrupting existing conversation threads. Most disrupters seem seriously oblivious to the fact that a conversation (if at all there is one after the flowers and the Good Mornings and the Happy Birthday wishes) on WhatsApp should be treated in the same manner as a discussion in a physical room and that they can’t just interrupt it with an idiotic forward, no matter how how much they think it is important, unless it is a matter of life and death for either the disrupter or one of the group members, which would perhaps be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, if ever at all. 

Venkatesh Rao in his book Tempo describes the four behaviors when adapting to the tempo of a new work environment, using car-driving as an example.

  1. Merging - skillfully merging into the traffic, when entering a freeway for example.

  2. Going with the flow - driving along with the rest of the traffic.

  3. Pace-setting - changing the speed and leading the traffic without disruption.

  4. Disrupting - tail-gating, cutting lanes, braking hard.

Similarly, if there is an ongoing conversation in a WhatsApp group or if you join an existing group (every group has different dynamics), you can use these skills to merge into the flow of the conversation, go with the flow and/or sometimes set the pace, but not disrupt.

And yet, ever so often (and this is not infrequent), there will a person or multiple people, who are clueless and like a bull in a China shop, will interrupt every flow with jokes or memes or trending news or the worst, “uplifting” messages on life. 

If you know anyone like that, do forward them this piece, so that perhaps they may be able to recognize themselves and hopefully change their behavior for the better.

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