Three Reasons Why Boundaries Matter When You Text or Chat Online

And how to set them

Charlie Lennox
Feb 21 · 7 min read
Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

If you’re a bit of an overthinker, you might have wondered in the past if you should text a friend during their work hours. Maybe you worried about a message left on “seen” for a while or an ambiguous reaction.

There is no texting apps etiquette. In our conversations, “in real life,” it usually comes more naturally. Some also find it easy to talk over the phone. But how are we supposed to initiate and maintain a conversation with someone we can’t see, hear or sometimes even barely know?

With a pandemic spreading worldwide, being safe means staying away from people. More than ever, our interactions take place on our phones and computers. Naturally, communicating with others through apps became common and convenient, but online conversations can trigger a great deal of anxious thoughts.

This reality urges a vital topic: boundaries. Healthy boundaries are crucial, and when it comes to chatting, an agreement and resources are lacking. Moreover, our approach and perceptions vary depending on our cultural background, our generation, the language we speak, or why we use these apps.

Why Boundaries Matter

Even stars collide, and out of their crashing new worlds are born. -Charlie Chaplin

Before we dive in, let’s dissect conversations. How much information can we subtract from our screen aside from words? Well, not a lot. Sometimes we know if the person is active or online, and Gifs, stickers, emojis, or links you’ve exchanged can be small indicators. However, there are a lot of things we’re often not aware of. Here are a few notable examples:

1- Location: where is the person?

2- Privacy: might other people see the conversation?

3- Availability: is their mind solicited by something else?

4- Non-verbal: what do their facial expression and posture look like?

5- Accessibility of cellphone: are they using their phone for other reasons? Did they run out of battery?

6- Feelings toward cellphone: is their phone a source of stress?

7- Timing: is it the right moment?

8- Context: is the context they’re in suitable?

9- State of mind: do they have enough headspace?

10- Physical health or ability: are they limited?

This list isn’t exhaustive, but you get the idea. Letting others know when, if, how, or where we’d like to chat is essential if we don’t want doubts, bad timings, and other minor annoyances to weigh our interactions down.

If I asked you how fast is a fast response when you chat with someone online, what would you answer? Each individual’s way of answering this question is different.

Now tell me: what is an acceptable response? Do “thumb ups” and GIF responses lack sensitivity? It depends? Ok, but on what?

When we don’t discuss our preferences and expectations in our conversations, others might end up talking to us in a way or at moments that burden our schedule or our mind. Being clear on how, when, and for how long we’re willing to communicate with someone is crucial if we want our conversations to stay fluid and agreeable.

If we pause for a moment, I’m sure we can all think of things or people in our lives that we want to prioritize. When we lack the time, how can we adjust our behavior and align our actions to our wishes? If you regularly find it challenging to prioritize or decline opportunities, you’re certainly not alone. It’s completely normal! Human beings are complex and flawed.

The other challenge with priorities and time management is that the sum of our short conversations can subtly but significantly be time-consuming. We send a reply “real quick” or laugh at a meme, and oops, here goes the unanticipated lingering interaction or an endless scroll on social networks. Drawing the line between what we allow to expand into our lives or not is often puzzling.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown highlights how when we get involved in something, we let go of some of our time. In return, this time won’t be available for what matters the most. The author suggests that if we want to regain control of our energy and schedule, being consistently mindful of how and who we spend our time with is crucial, even in the casual details. Setting boundaries, saying “no” more often, and shortening conversations are some of his recommendations.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

I want to pause briefly here before we discuss the “how to.” Please, PLEASE keep in mind that no one masters the *art of chatting*. While we do our best to stay safe and respectful, we might also make mistakes or misinterpret someone. We might even accidentally cross someone’s boundaries. Do your best to honor your own limitations. Be open to understanding others and their communication preferences. The time will come where you feel more familiar around someone and feel you can talk more spontaneously and if that never happens, see it as an occasion for you to learn and practice self-compassion.

What Exactly Are Healthy Boundaries?

Dr. Dana Gionta explains that having healthy boundaries means knowing and understanding our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual limits. We need to ask ourselves what we are willing to tolerate and accept and what makes us feel uncomfortable. The two feelings she recommends paying attention to are stress and resentment, as they can help us figure out what aspects of our interactions or a person are bothering us.

Types of Boundaries

What exactly should we pay attention to when chatting is unpleasant? Online, boundaries can belong to one or many of the following categories:

  • Time: when discussions happen and their duration.
  • Emotional: how certain topics or the other person makes us feel.
  • Intellectual: our thoughts and how they’re received.
  • Sexual: the level of intimacy we’re willing to share with someone through the chat window and our preferences and desires.
  • Privacy: what personal information we share and how photos or videos of us are tagged, used, or shared.
  • Personal space: how present someone is in our life or how often they interact with us.

Challenges

Our mind is skilled. It can make us believe that we should avoid or postpone being assertive when something doesn’t feel right. The real culprit is often anxiety and its array of excuses. Perhaps some of these thoughts will sound familiar:

  • “But what if it means there will be a confrontation.”
  • “I’ll probably disappoint them”
  • “It’s not the right moment. I’ll wait until…”
  • “I’m too tired.”
  • “They look busy.”
  • “It’s not that important anyway.”

However, the downside when we don’t share about our discomforts is that we’ll feel preoccupied. It could even build a heavy tension in our daily life, so the sooner we speak up for ourselves, the better.

Keep also in mind that when a boundary is crossed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person had bad intentions. Sometimes they’re not aware of our limits or aware that they‘ve’ changed. However, others’ intentions don’t change the way you experienced something. Your feelings are always valid and important regardless of the other person’s motives.

How to Set Your Limits

Try phrasing what you need to say and practicing by yourself on a piece of paper or a notepad on your phone. Visualizing how a situation will unfold sometimes helps feeling more confident. Think about how you want to bring things up and how you’ll phrase your first sentences. Try not to overthink it. You can’t predict what the other person will say or how they will react, so focus on feeling prepared and communicating clearly.

I listed a few examples in case they might come handy:

  • I enjoy talking with you. Let’s continue this conversation sometime soon!
  • I would rather not receive messages during work hours.
  • Now is not a good time.
  • I’m upset. I’ll get back to you when I feel better.
  • I’m not a fan of texting. Can we talk on the phone?
  • I’m not interested in chatting with you.
  • Please change the subject. I’m uncomfortable.
  • I need some time by myself today.

Setting boundaries that feel easier is also a good place to start. For example, I find that telling my friends I’m busy and can’t chat with them during the daytime is easier for me than asking them to avoid certain topics. What feels easy or difficult depends on each individual. If you don’t know where to start, write down a list of the things you find challenging about your chats with someone and pick the least challenging one.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes it better. Discussing a boundary that seems hard to set with a friend who’s not involved will make you feel validated and help you feel more self-assured when you’ll roll up your sleeves and talk to the concerned person.

Not all boundaries can be verbalized. In some contexts, we may even choose not to respond. Avoiding someone if they don’t make us feel safe or comfortable is a normal reaction. If you do so, make sure you remain as respectful as you can. There’s a difference between “ghosting” (ignoring someone without a reasonable motive) and leaving them behind for legitimate reasons. Being ignored can be remarkably hurtful so use with care!

Now go ahead and do your best to stay in touch with yourself. Respect others’ limits and communicate your own, even when you don’t feel like it. This will allow you to express yourself authentically and maintain healthy relationships, even from behind screens, windows, or masks.

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Charlie Lennox

Written by

Passionate writer. Mental illness destigmatization advocate. Trauma survivor and informed. Fibromyalgia Warrior. They/them.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Charlie Lennox

Written by

Passionate writer. Mental illness destigmatization advocate. Trauma survivor and informed. Fibromyalgia Warrior. They/them.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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