Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week, she talks with three friends who instant-message one another on Gchat all day, every day. They’ve been friends since high school, but even though they’ve lost touch with other people from that time, they’ve only grown closer, consulting the group chat for everything from dates and interviews to whether they should eat the free cookies in the office. They discuss the importance of an on-call digital sounding board, struggles with acronyms, and why sharing the mundane details of everyday life can be more intimate than the big milestones.
Aisha “Sha” Akhter, 27, who works for an international health-research organization and lives in Queens, New York
Chris Kwon, 28, a book designer who lives in Brooklyn, New York
Jess Matusaitis, 27, a claims adjuster for an insurance company who lives in Waynesboro, Virginia
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: How did you guys meet?
Aisha Akhter: I met Jess in middle school. I was new; my family had just moved to town. I was there for three years and then got to high school, and saw Jess in the hallway. She was just casually like, “Oh, what middle school did you go to?” And I was like, “Girl, I went to your middle school. I sat with you at lunch every single day.” And she had no recollection.
Jess Matusaitis: The worst part is, there are pictures of us together and I just don’t remember it.
Beck: Did you drift apart for a little while or something?
Aisha: No. So I never got to hang out with friends after school, just because my parents would be like, “Go to school and come home.” If people invited me to their birthday parties and graduation parties, I never got to go. So to me it was like, “Yeah, I’m best friends with these people,” but in your mind, it was like, Who is this chick sitting with me at lunch?
Jess: I really kept to myself in middle school. I had like two friends, and I don’t remember Sha being one of them. I don’t know what happened.
Aisha: But it was a shock to me when I was like, “Nobody remembers me from middle school?!”
Beck: When did Chris become part of your friend group?
Aisha: I specifically remember toward the end of junior year, I was in gym class with one of our other friends, Ariella. Normally, you get ready in the locker room, and then you stand around and chat with your friends before the teacher blows the whistle. And you do your stretches while they take attendance.
Chris Kwon: I have to interject: I hate how accurate this story is.
Aisha: I will never forget this moment; it’s one of the best days of my life. So Ariella and I were standing outside after we changed, chatting, and she’s like, “Look at that weird kid over there. He’s in my Spanish class.” I look over, and everyone’s standing, but this one kid is sitting down, already in his attendance spot, doing these leg stretches and changing it up very intensely like left leg, right leg, arm, other arm.
Ariella was like, “Look at this weird kid, sitting in his spot, doing stretches.” I just looked at her and walked away. I walked right up to this kid doing stretches, I bent down, and I was like, “Hi, do you want to be my friend?” And he was like “Yeah!”
Chris: That’s exactly how it went.
Jess: I didn’t know Kwon at that point. I don’t even remember how it actually happened. I just remember one day being aware of him, and then the next day we were friends. In high school, we had a pretty wide friend group. We called ourselves “the Ohana”—like Lilo and Stitch.
Jess: But the minute high school ended, almost all of us stopped talking to each other.
Beck: Did you guys go to different schools, or different cities for work, after high school?
Chris: Well Jess and Sha went to Rutgers, in New Jersey. They were at one point roommates while going to school. I had gone to school in [New York City, at the School of Visual Arts], and I wasn’t really part of a structured university with a campus or anything, so they would always invite me to come down to Rutgers, and we’d go to parties and stuff in Jersey.
Aisha: After we graduated, everyone [in our friend group] would log in and we would all videochat. Then, naturally, the videochats got smaller and smaller, and our friend group broke off into different things. The three of us hung out often. We would plan things—dinners, or hanging out at each other’s houses or seeing a movie—so there was always something to look forward to.
Beck: At what point did Gchat become important to your friendship?
Jess: Sha graduated a year before me from college. And she started working in [New York]. So she was in the city, Kwon was in the city. I had moved to the next town over from our college, and that was about an hour train ride [from New York City.] Then my boyfriend and I moved to Virginia. That’s when it really started, because I couldn’t just hop on a train and come say hi.
Aisha: Also, we all were sitting at our desks at work, and we started a Gchat like, “Hey, how is your day going?” or “How’s your first day?”—that kind of stuff. And then that spiraled into talking to each other nonstop.
Chris: Right after school, we were all looking for jobs, and Sha happened to be looking in the city. We bridged the gap in our friendship that way, by meeting up whenever we had interviews.
Aisha: Still, to this day, Kwon is my chaperone for everything. Like going to interviews, going on first dates …
Beck: He’s chaperoning you on dates?
Aisha: I bring him everywhere. I have a funny story about this. I had a first date with someone and I was gonna meet him at the Russian Tea Room. I messaged Kwon, and I don’t know where we were at in our lives [that made this possible], but we met at a bar at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. We went to a gay bar, just to have a beer, because I get nervous. He was gonna give me a pep talk, like he usually does.
So we get to this bar, and I guess the bartender overhears me and he comes over, and he’s like, “There’s no need for you to be nervous; let’s all do a shot!” And we did a shot. And it just so happened that day, they were getting a margarita machine installed, so he was like, “Do you guys want to test it first?” By that point we’re like, “Of course, you’re our best friend.” I think at one point we sent Jess a video from this bar.
Eventually it’s time for me to go to my date, and I remember Kwon walking me to the Russian Tea Room. And then, the rest of the night I have no recollection whatsoever, and I ended up dating this guy for a year. Four months into the relationship, I was like, “Oh, I want you to meet my best friend Kwon.” And he looks at me and he’s like, “I already met him. He walked you to our first date.”
Beck: Wow. So you guys have at this point started Gchatting all the time. What sort of things do you usually talk about? And is it just during the workday?
Jess: A big chunk of it is during the workday. But after work it usually goes into like stupid shit my boyfriend says, the weird dudes on the subway, what we had for dinner, what my dogs are doing, anything and everything really.
Aisha: I feel like it’s 24 hours we message each other.
Beck: When you’re at work, I know it’s on a laptop or something, but do you have it on your phones, and you just keep Gchatting after you leave?
Jess: I’m not allowed to access email on my work computer, so I have to do it on my phone. It’s taken the place of my regular texting app.
Beck: Does each person have a certain role that you play in your Gchat dynamic? Like for example, I’ve been told that Kwon gets confused by abbreviations.
Chris: Yeah, all the time. I’m often Googling on the side in a new tab, What does this mean?
Jess: Which is hard because I literally type everything in acronyms. It gets to the point where I’ll have a whole conversation with him only to find out afterwards that he didn’t know what any of that meant.
One time I was mocking some people at work, and I said that they think that everyone is just an SJW, meaning social-justice warrior.
Chris: I’ve definitely heard that term before and I should know what that is, but when I was trying to consider what that meant, I was like, Susan J. Wanthony? That was the literal thought that came to my head, and I was like, That can’t be right.
Beck: That’s not even her middle initial—it was B.
Chris: Listen, we don’t need to revisit that. Let’s move on.
Aisha: I feel you could give Jess any word and she could abbreviate it.
Beck: Are there examples of times where your Gchat group played a role in helping you through something?
Aisha: I would say literally every day of my life.
Jess: Honestly, yeah.
Aisha: More specifically, I mentioned it before, my parents were super strict growing up. I couldn’t even hang out at someone’s house after school. Jess and Kwon have been my friends through thick and thin. They didn’t make me feel bad about saying “I can’t make it,” and they still wanted to be my friends for whatever reason. Even just chatting with them on Gchat makes me feel that we’re close friends. It’s not all about having to see each other. It’s nice to have someone to talk to 24/7.
Chris: That’s comforting for me, knowing how accessible they are. Even with our distance, I never feel like they’re far from me. They’re literally just right next to me, on my phone, able to communicate instantly.
Aisha: I feel like making friends is so hard these days. Either that or we’re just really bad at it. Any friends that I’ve made since high school have just not been able to live up to the quality and funniness that I can count on with them. This little friend circle right here is just something else. Something that will never change.
Beck: Do you ever use Gchat to just vent to each other?
Aisha: I think there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that I haven’t complained about something at work. But even more so than just complaining, sometimes they’re such a good distraction that I don’t need to blow up or get super frustrated. Jess will be like, “Look at my lunch today,” and she has this four-course meal, and I’m like, “That looks so good!” And then I start thinking about what I’m gonna eat for lunch and it calms me down.
Jess: What I do at work is basically, when people get hurt, I’m the person they talk to. A lot of people are attorney-represented, so I spend most of my day talking to attorneys. And a lot of them are very nice. But some of these people are so rude. One day, this guy was just really railing on me for 30 minutes, and it got to the point where I hung up and I was fighting back angry tears. It’s nice to then be able to pick up my phone and have Kwon and Sha there. Kwon almost always has something nice to say, or cheers me up. That’s a nice thing to have because my job is very stressful. It’s nice to get some of that stuff out before I go home, and this way I’m not taking my bad mood out on my boyfriend, when he didn’t do anything.
Beck: Have there been any other major milestones in your lives that intersected with your friendship?
Jess: Not to get too somber but my sister died in October of last year, and one of the first things I did was I texted them, because I didn’t know what else to do. They were there for me, and that was really helpful. And then obviously there’s other times, too, when we need each other. They feel like they need to ask me stuff about interviews, stuff like that. And Sha’s brother recently had a baby, and she sends us stuff with this baby all day, every day. I feel like it’s my baby at this point.
Aisha: I don’t want to post her face on social media, so I’m like, Who can I share these cute pictures with? Someone needs to appreciate my niece. I send almost every single one to Jess and Kwon, and they’re literally her hype people. They’re like, “Look at her dimples!” This is the recognition I need.
Also, I’ve been going on a few job interviews, and they are my saviors. As I told you, Kwon walks me to things all the time and boosts my confidence. I don’t have any confidence at all; it’s like Kwon is my confidence.
Chris: Sha and Jess are my sounding board for everything, like, “Hey guys, do you think that I deserve that extra piece of cookie that’s in the office?” And they’re like, “Go for it, get it.”
Aisha: The answer’s always yes.
Chris: I never regret it. I’m like, Yes, you did deserve that cookie. Any little decision, I always have to consult them. There’s never a moment where I’m not considering, What would Jess and Sha tell me to do?
Aisha: Also, Kwon had a major transformation. Kwon is so buff right now.
Chris: Oh my God.
Aisha: It’s come full circle from when I saw you doing the stretches during gym. We visited Jess in Virginia and we all went on a hike, and I was like, “Leave me behind, please.” And Kwon was climbing trees and hanging upside down. He eats so well; he goes to the gym twice a day sometimes. I’m in awe of his dedication. Which is why I’m always like, “Yes to the cookie.”
Chris: I used to work really close to Sha, in Midtown, and we would meet for lunches every once in a while. There was this one particular lunch where I had something really important to tell Sha—it’s basically my coming out story. I really wanted to tell her in person, but then I just got so, so nervous and I chickened out. Then we got back to the office and I immediately went on Gchat and said, “Hey, I actually wanted to tell you something; I don’t know if I could’ve told you in person, but this is much easier for me. I’m starting to see this guy.” She was like, “Oh, and? Are you happy? I want you to be living your life.” All of these positive affirmations. It was such a relief for me to hear that from her. I knew I would have gotten that face-to-face, but my mind is my greatest enemy, so I thought, No, let’s just do it on Gchat. And now I have a personal record of it on my Gmail account.
Beck: Do you guys ever go back and search through your Gchat records?
Aisha: I do that all the time, I’m messaging them all the time reminiscing about moments. I just typed in the word acronym when we were talking about it and I realized this could be its own book—all of the acronyms that Kwon does not understand.
Chris: I was just about to say, you always bring the receipts.
Beck: Receipts for what?
Chris: She has records of you saying something—be careful. I remember one time, she caught me in a lie. She brought up the Gchat and took a screenshot and said, “Did you or did you not say this exact thing?” And I was like, “Hmm, I did say that.” That’s a major hindrance for me.
Beck: One thing that’s comforting about these kinds of constant group chats is they do become a repository for the mundane, day-to-day stuff of life. And it sort of feels more intimate when your friends know the boring things, like what you’re eating for lunch or Wasn’t that co-worker annoying you last week too? As opposed to just the bigger moments. Does that feel true for you guys?
Aisha: Yeah, I agree 200 percent.
Chris: Yeah, could she read our minds or something? Honestly.
Aisha: When you asked for screenshots, I had the hardest time trying to find things because everything to me, looking back on it, felt so mundane. I was like, Why would Julie want to see a screenshot of us sharing our lunches? But it made me realize, we don’t talk about anything in particular really, just everyday stuff. Like, “Hey, how you guys doing today?” Or, “Hey, I’m here; I support you.” It’s just nice to have a space and a soundboard for our everyday talk, just to get us through the regular day.
If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at email@example.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.