A week or so ago, a story appeared on this very website detailing the near-collapse of a marriage as a result of a supposedly-treacherous WhatsApp message in which a man referred to his wife as “SWMBO”. Her article went viral.
This offensive acronym, for those who don’t know, translates as “she who must be obeyed” — hardly the most “woke” phrase going, but enough to lose your wife and child over?
My hunch is that the discovery of this unwanted nickname might have been closer to the straw that broke the camel’s back than the spark that lit the fuse.
Even so, it raises an interesting point about how we communicate with one another on WhatsApp, particularly in men-only groups, because it is markedly different to how we are “In Real Life”. Conversations are immediate, fast-paced, snarky, attention-grabby, and more blunt than they would be in person, because (speaking from my own experience) there’s a clear element of pantomime at work.
Chats take on a jocular shorthand, the stock in trade is big laughs and top-line information, rather than something as mundane and long-form as nuance and thoughtfulness. Partly because we haven’t got time, but also because that’s not really what WhatsApp is about.
That’s the crucial element here, and something that may have been lost in translation. WhatsApp, despite its pretence of being a private messaging service, is just another form of social media. It’s a place to show off to your mates, so, like your Twitter, or Instagram or Facebook feeds, it requires you to strike a slightly extra-terrestrial pose; to curate a superhero version of yourself for others to marvel at (your superpower being that most heinous of male afflictions, top-level “banter”).
As such, you paint with broad brush strokes, the volume is turned up to 11. Your opinions are bigger and bolder, your quips are more savage, you become a caricature, and because of that you take linguistic risks that you definitely wouldn’t take in civilised society.
But the key thing is that you know your audience, and you know they’re in on the ruse. The comments aren’t really meant to hurt or belittle; they’re almost a pastiche of something far more crass and rudimentary.
In fact, on reading about the plight of our unfortunate “SWMBO” my first thought was that there must be much worse cases of cringeworthy “locker room talk” that prying female eyes have discovered on their partners’ WhatsApps.
“Banter is a mixture of one-upmanship and fear of expressing real emotion,” says Dr Gary Wood, psychologist and author of “The Psychology of Gender”. “It’s essentially just men’s way of pretending to be tougher than they are.”
It’s a notion that’s echoed when I gently suggest to some members of my male-only WhatsApp groups the idea of sharing some of our online chats with our wives and girlfriends.
“No way,” says one pal. “I love my wife far more than any of you bozos, but my God if she read my WhatsApp messages without context she’d think I was a 1970s club comic with zero morals! It’s not a true indicator of who you are by any stretch.”
“Would I let my girlfriend read through my chats? Absolutely not!” gasps another.
And that goes for me too, because without the all-important context, some of my messages can read appallingly badly. I have, I admit, referred to my wife as “the boss”, sketching her as the cartoonish autocrat she most definitely isn’t. I’ve talked about seeing if I can “escape the leash” and join my male friends for a night out, implying that I’m only a family man out of a twisted sense of duty.
But neither of these suggestions are a true reflection of my life, nor my relationship. I’m a doting father and husband, I love my wife, I love my children — and, crucially, the members of every WhatsApp group I’m in know that really (because we’ve all known one another “offline” for decades).
We understand that the way we communicate via these groups is (for the most part) clownish, and that it’s entirely possible to be modern and “woke” while aping an outdated comic sensibility.
We’re not peddling sinister “p***y-grabbing” Trumpisms, we’re lampooning them, sending up our own gender with a tsunami of self-aware banter. But amid all of that there are moments of actual poignancy. Such as when a friend bravely shared his struggles with depression, and found a Greek Chorus of far more sympathetic, empathetic and understanding voices than I’m sure he was expecting. Or when another had a big operation looming and nearly drowned in a sea of good sentiment.
“Often men use phrases like ‘ball and chain’ as a shorthand way of explaining a temporary loss of independence due to relationship commitments,” continues Dr Wood. “But it’s also a convenient excuse to ‘save face’ when you’d rather have a night in watching “The Great British Bake-Off” than re-enacting the rites of Bacchus for the umpteenth time!”
It’s a pertinent point. I wonder how many men have indeed chosen to cower behind the fictional rolling pin in a bid to deflect from the truth (that they’re just a bit tired)? My guess would be Bloody Loads.
And while they’d rather their womenfolk aren’t aware that they are being used as a convenient excuse to skip a stag night or football match, does that mean they don’t adore, cherish and respect their partners? Not a bit of it.
A healthy relationship is based on trusting one another and understanding that having a bit of privacy from one another doesn’t make you “secretive” or “untrustworthy”.
But more than any of that, a healthy relationship is all about respecting each other’s right to behave like a complete dork in cyberspace.
Now, where did my wife put her phone? — The Telegraph.