What Does Mercury in Retrograde Mean?

When everything seems to be going wrong at the same time, it might not just be bad luck. Here’s what happens during a Mercury retrograde.

“Mercury must be in retrograde” has become a kind of catchall phrase for explaining why something has gone haywire in our lives. It’s basically the Murphy’s Law of astrology: Everything that can go wrong will go wrong during this planetary movement. At least, that’s how we use it in common conversation. But what does Mercury in retrograde really mean in astrological terms?

Mercury is in retrograde when it appears to go backward in its orbit. This optical illusion occurs multiple times a year because it takes just 88 days for Mercury to circle the sun, compared to Earth’s 365 days. As such, astrologers think that the areas of life ruled by this planet can also take a step in the wrong direction. According to astrologer Emily Ridout, that means complications surrounding communication and travel.

“Mercury is the winged messenger of the gods in [Roman] mythology,” she explains. “That imagery indicates the intellect, because we use our intellect to communicate: writing, spoken word, email, contracts, agreements, etc.” The planet closest to the sun is associated with conveying messages, as well as means of conveyance (i.e., transportation). So while a Mercury retrograde may get you into an argument with your significant other or delay your train, it’s not the reason your toaster broke this morning.

When will Mercury be in retrograde in 2021?

According to Ridout, there are three cycles of Mercury retrograde to look out for in 2021. The first is January 30 to February 20, when it will retrograde in Aquarius. The second is May 29 to June 22 in Gemini, and the last is September 27 to October 18 in Libra. See how those dates align with the luckiest (and unluckiest) months of 2021, according to your zodiac sign.

How does Mercury retrograde affect me?

Don’t jump into panic mode prematurely. “Nothing about Mercury in retrograde is catastrophic,” Ridout says. “It’s just annoying.” That being said, communication and travel are essential parts of life—especially modern life. “The modernized, technological world is very dependent on Mercury,” she notes. “Ours is a culture of hyperconnectivity and hyper productivity.”

Today’s working world revolves around emails, press conferences, forms, and shipping labels. We keep in touch with friends and family through texts, calls, and social media. Throwing a wrench in any of these aspects of life can cost dollars and patience, which is why taking time to think carefully during a Mercury retrograde can be the difference between success and failure.

“We’re so busy panicking because we want to move forward that we forget about the importance of reflection,” Ridout explains. “Maybe the way we’ve been moving forward is not the most optimal way.” When Mercury is in retrograde, evaluate your decision-making process instead of simply going about business as usual. And consider all the possible consequences of your words before sending a confessional text to your crush or standing up to your boss. This is probably a good time to brush up on these 11 phrases that will make you more successful at work.

Does Mercury retrograde affect relationships?

Communication is the heart of any relationship, and there are certain communication rules that every couple should follow. Whether it’s a romantic relationship or a friendship, poor communication can lead to hurt feelings, frustration, and arguments. A Mercury retrograde makes these setbacks more likely, as it is a time when messages can get lost in translation.

“You might realize your partner communicates in a very direct way and tells the facts,” Ridout says, “and you communicate in a very feeling-centered, roundabout way. Sometimes there’s a mistake where they don’t hear your message or you take theirs as being too harsh.” It is easy to lose patience and storm off in a huff, but that usually just makes matters worse. Instead, be mindful about how to articulate opinions without pushing the other person’s buttons.

“Take this time and use it to make the relationship stronger,” Ridout suggests. “We always have that choice when things aren’t working the way we planned. Are you going to say, ‘How can we look at how we’re communicating to make this run more smoothly in the future?’ Or are you just going to blow up and blame someone else?”

What should you not do during Mercury retrograde?

Ideally, no significant life decisions should be made when Mercury is in retrograde. Contracts should not be signed, and it’s probably not the best time to publish a controversial opinion piece. “It’s a time of reflection,” Ridout says, “not a time of initiating new conversations or activities.” If you can, give yourself time and space to rest before jumping into action.

However, avoiding responsibilities until the planets realign is not always realistic. “You might not have the luxury of completely planning things around [the retrograde],” Ridout says, “so I would say if you do choose to move into a new venture, take an extra beat to deeply consider it.

Similarly, extra precautions should be taken when planning a trip. Don’t assume that a bus will be on time or have a seat open for you. Commuting to work? Be at the subway station 15 minutes earlier than usual. Catching a flight? Triple-check your itinerary and leave plenty of room for traffic. “Traveling can have way more hiccups if you aren’t sufficiently reflective about it,” Ridout says. “Have extra patience.” That’s a worthy New Year’s resolution for any zodiac sign!

Which signs will be affected by Mercury retrograde?

If Mercury retrogrades in your astrological house, you’re going to feel the effects of this planetary motion more than usual. For instance, the Mercury retrograde that takes place from January 30 to February 20, 2021, begins in Aquarius, so an Aquarius sign will experience it more acutely than another sign. Additionally, if the retrograde takes place in the Mercury area of your astrology chart, you will also have an amplified experience.

Aside from these specific circumstances, there are zodiac signs that are generally more influenced by the small planet’s motions. “Those signs that are hell-bent on productivity and moving forward—Capricorn, Aries, and Virgo,” Ridout enumerates. “Capricorn likes to go, go, go, and have things run like clockwork. Aries, they’d rather burn through obstacles instead of taking a pause.”

The zodiac signs least likely to be perturbed by a Mercury retrograde are Cancer and Pisces. “Cancer is naturally a sign of reflection,” she explains. “And Pisces tends to go with the flow more. These water signs are more able to ride with the punches instead of forcing a rigid nature. Anyone trying to force a rigid nature on Mercury in retrograde is going to have an unpleasant time.” Next, find out what else 2021 has in store for you, based on your Chinese zodiac sign.

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Taylor Markarian
Taylor Markarian is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest's Culture, Advice, Travel and Pets beats. She is also a music journalist who has contributed to Alternative Press, Loudwire, Revolver, Kerrang! and more. Markarian is the author of the book, 'From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society', which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a degree in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College.