"I think it’s fine," my friend Charlotte* messaged me on WhatsApp. "Let me know how it goes."
Reassured that my message (to a guy I’d met on Hinge, had been on a couple of dates with and with whom I’d decided I didn’t see things progressing) wasn’t dismissive, inconsiderate or over the top, I copied and pasted my draft and – with Charlotte’s encouragement helping to dispel the butterflies in my stomach – pressed send.
Twenty-four-year-old Darshita checks her approach to social situations with her friends, too. "A close friend of mine borrowed some money from me and I’m trying to figure out a way to ask her to pay me back," she tells me. "I’m trying to be assertive without being aggressive." So Darshita had another friend read the message she wanted to send. "To make sure I’m saying the right things and I don’t come off as too pushy but I still get what I need."
Why do we need our friends or partners to tell us we're not being shitty human beings?
This habit of asking others if you’re wording a personal message in the best way – or approaching a social situation compassionately – can be described as 'sense-checking'. Hailing from the workplace, sense-checking will likely be a regular part of your office jargon if you work in a corporate environment.
"Sense-checking is the process of reviewing or verifying something to ensure [it’s] reasonable, accurate and logical or simply 'makes sense'," says Sophie Bryan, a certified practitioner with the American Board of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and a career and life coach with over 20 years of HR experience.
Bryan explains that sense-checking in the workplace usually consists of "double-checking information or data, evaluating assumptions or reviewing a proposed course of action".
It makes sense that sense-checking is routine in work environments. "It ensures all decisions and actions made by an organisation are based on accurate and reliable information," says Bryan. But what is it about our personal relationships that make us want to sense-check our words before sending them? In short: Why do we need our friends or partners to tell us we’re not being shitty human beings?
For 23-year-old Shivani, who sense-checks "a lot" in her personal relationships, it’s about being reassured and validated. "I like to have the reassurance that I’m saying [something] in the right way so that it’s compassionate and nobody is offended or harmed at all," she says. "[Plus, your friends] validate your feelings when you ask them for their advice – if you’re in the right, obviously. If you’re wrong, then they tell you that you’re wrong."
This makes sense. When we’re stuck in a tense, unmoving argument, it can become difficult to tell who’s right and who's wrong without the benefit of an outside eye. Sometimes, though, we know deep down that we’re in the right, and we just need that final nudge to do what we know we need to do.
"As in the case of my friend with the money, my inner monologue sometimes is like, 'You should be more understanding of her situation, maybe now’s not the right time'," says Darshita. "But I know that if I ask my best friends or my boyfriend, they will validate me and tell me, 'No, you need to ask her, this is completely normal'."
Dr Sarah Bishop is a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registered clinical psychologist. She points out that sense-checking can have roots in anxiety. "Reassurance-seeking is a common way that we try to manage our anxiety," she says. "When something makes us feel uncomfortable, we want that discomfort to go away." Cue friends telling us: "Go for it! You’re in the right."
"The problem with sense-checking due to unnecessary anxiety is that we never learn to manage the uncomfortable feelings on our own."
Dr Sarah Bishop
"The question should therefore be: Why does expressing these feelings of [e.g.] hurt or disappointment make you so uncomfortable?" Bishop continues. "Do you have a problem saying no? Do you feel overly responsible for the feelings of others? If these situations are making you uncomfortable enough to cause the need to over-check your messages, then this could be a sign of anxiety."
And then, as with so many social phenomena, there’s social media. The hashtag #manipulation has 2.6 million posts on Instagram; when I typed 'narcissist' into the search bar on Twitter, it had been tweeted 300 times in the last hour. On TikTok, #gaslighting has a staggering 2.3 billion views, while #toxicpeople has 488 million.
Often, this collective habit of labelling every behaviour and personality type on social media is positive and, for me, leads to helpful sense-checking. I’ve sometimes wondered whether I’m on the receiving end of subtly problematic behaviour and have asked a friend for their thoughts so they can validate what, deep down, I know to be true. Having them sense-check my suspicions has given me the quiet courage to take the first step in addressing the issue, and I largely have social media to thank for this.
Equally, though, I’ve often agonised over whether I’m being inadvertently manipulative or passive-aggressive – toxic, in other words – by setting my boundaries or pointing out someone else’s hurtful behaviour.
In these latter situations, sense-checking can, again, be useful for me. "These terms are bandied around a lot on social media and while it is really important that we have an understanding and awareness of such behaviours, it is important to be realistic about what constitutes abuse," says Bishop. "Disappointing someone, saying no or disagreeing are not forms of abuse. It is possible to communicate those things sensitively and politely. Chances are, if you’re that worried about upsetting someone, you’re probably more 'problematic' to yourself than anyone else."
Bishop’s words remind me of Vicky Spratt’s Refinery29 article "Not Everything Is Toxic Just Because You Don’t Like It". As Spratt wrote: "If something is toxic, it is poisonous." I’m not being poisonous by politely telling someone that I don’t see things moving forward romantically. I know this – but sometimes I struggle to remind myself of it, and that’s when (and why) I sense-check.
Plenty of my friends don’t feel the need to sense-check in this way. They have confidence in their words and actions (rightly or wrongly) and they have no problem setting boundaries or telling someone what they don’t want to hear. I’m not there yet. Sometimes I worry that I’m acting in a toxic way; sometimes I’m just terrified of confrontation and I want to know, via sense-checking, that there’s someone on my side.
Similarly, Darshita doesn’t always look for an objective answer when she sense-checks. "More than trying to find out in reality what they actually think, I’m kind of seeking a bias there, where I want someone to support me," she says.
Besides, sense-checking can help us grow as people. "I ask my friends: 'Okay, do you think this is justified, do you think I’m being unreasonable by being angry [or] upset?'," says Shivani. In the event that she is wrong, she adds: "It is necessary to have somebody tell you, 'Hey, this is not the right thing to do'."
"If you have received objective feedback that your communication style is inappropriate, then it probably is a good idea to have someone check over things you are unsure of," Bishop agrees. "This is important to grow and learn."
Of course, there are limits. Relying too heavily on other people for reassurance is not healthy for them or us. "The problem with sense-checking due to unnecessary anxiety is that we never learn to manage the uncomfortable feelings on our own," explains Bishop. "If the sense-checking is more to do with your own anxiety, then it is perhaps worth reflecting on why communicating tricky messages makes you so uncomfortable and know that asking someone else to reassure [you] will not address the roots of this."
Ultimately, we need to be able to look to ourselves for reassurance above all else. But we’re not all born with this inner compass. If trusting our motivations, actions or words in certain social scenarios is something we find difficult, then occasionally sense-checking with trusted others (so long as it’s a give-and-take relationship and the person we’re sense-checking with has the emotional bandwidth at the time) could help us on our journey towards that point of quiet inner confidence. After all, humans are social creatures and it’s natural to look to other trusted humans to help us navigate our way through life.
"I think sense-checking helps remind me that I’m not crossing someone’s boundary, I’m not overdoing something, and I perhaps am asking for what I deserve," says Darshita. "[It's] a great way for me to feel like I’m going on the right path."
*Name changed to protect identity