As I child, I was ridiculed for a social habit I had of ending everything I said with,
“You know what I mean?”
I remember the exacerbation of some family members and friends who would say,
“YES, we know what you mean!”
Who knows why I am the way I am, but I am a person who has always loved interaction. Mutuality and relationships are the best things in life for me. I have always been social, and always wanted to surround myself with friends and family. The last four years my extrovert-ism was shaken to its core, and I did feel a shift toward a more ambivert perspective after some years of adjustment. But ultimately, I still prefer to be in relationships over being on my own. And I crave feedback and information…from my friends, from my professors, from my children and husband.
As we adapted to Colombian cultural norms, we learned very quickly that personal conversation and phone calls are seriously important. The BEST way to talk to someone is in person, and the second best is on the phone. Phone calls are never ignored. In fact, we were stunned that so many people answer their calls even in the middle of other meetings and can carry on simultaneous conversations while the meeting proceeds. This was explained to us by a cultural interpreter as a way for the person receiving the call to care for ALL of their relationships at the same time: that relationships were primary and were to be given the utmost priority. Not only were phone calls taken, but conversations contained longer “warm-ups” and “check-ins,” where the caller asked about everyone in your family and basically your life. We assimilated into this fairly well, though I restrained from taking personal or sensitive work phone calls during another meeting. One of our favorite Colombian traditions was when our friends tried to be the very first ones to call on our birthday to wish us a happy birthday, and their wishes showered us with love and affection.
Coming back to the United States we found that many of our friends had given up their landlines and only used cell phones. Some of them would answer the phone when we called, but many of them just let their calls go to voice mail. I started writing friends down as emergency contacts for my kids, not because they were our closest friends but because I thought they might answer their phone if there was an actual emergency. If we did manage to get ahold of someone, the conversations were short and impersonal. I remember calling a friend to talk soon after we got back. She answered the phone and said, “Jen, can you text? It is really much more efficient.”
So we learned to text. Floundering in the confusion of what to say, what NOT to say, how to read any cues, and interpret the meta-communication that we are so used to interpreting in the oral world…but it was gone. Words were stripped down, and sometimes replaced even with symbols. I would sometimes text a friend and never get a response. It seemed perfectly acceptable (socially) to answer that text or to ignore it for days…even weeks. And there was also a great deal of confusion about when to answer texts. One night sharing dinner with friends, three of them were texting during our conversation. Were they also caring for all their relationships at the same time? Did they see those interactions as more important than the one we were having?
Facebook changed too, though I felt it come on slowly during our time away. I started to receive more and more comments and “likes” from my family members, former friends, and people I had associated with, but very little from close friends. Even very recently, I asked a question to eight of my friends on Facebook and more than 24 hours later there has been no response to that question. No comment. No virtual nodding or eye contact. No acknowledgement that anything at all was said. Do I even know they got the question? Did they assume someone else would answer it? Do they find my questions pestering? This is not the first time this has happened. Frequently, especially in online group conversations I assert a question or comment and it goes unacknowledged.
As a person who craves interaction, my truth is that this hurts.
I read a study recently stating that Facebook causes depression if you are a lurker, but if you are an inter-actor, Facebook is good for fostering community and helping people with a sense of belonging. My husband, whose profession is helping people connect more says this is called “closing the channel.” You send out a message, it gets received and interpreted, and ultimately recognized. And when there is no feedback, the channel is left open, causing the sender to question what happened. It is also a way for the receiver to control the situation.
Culturally, we aren’t really used to doing it. When someone gives us a compliment, we are more likely to deny it than we are to just simply say, “Thank you.”
As for me, I miss the eye contact, the nodding, the “uh huhs” and “hmmmms.” I miss taking the conversation one more step, engaging so that mutuality and respect can be felt and heard; so that understanding can happen. I am tired of wondering how the one-sided messages I send out into the cell phone/internet world are being interpreted, what kinds of communication I am missing, and what may or may not be talked about when I am not around. I am just plain tired.
My work life has led me toward a weekly rhythm where I work on my own a lot. I feel a loss of regular contact with co-workers, and I miss my friends. Sometimes I take initiatives to invite them to dinner or send them a text, and some times that leads to genuine connections. I feel lonely when I try this so often and it doesn’t work. I feel lost when the “norms” for communicating don’t foster friendships that can go deeper and mean more. I miss calling my best friend and chatting over the little things in life, which ultimately lead us to deeper issues and a feeling of connectedness.
And because of this, I want to offer a challenge.
I challenge you, (if anyone out there is reading this) to start closing the electronic channels and try to connect more authentically and fully with people in your life. Make a comment. Look someone in the eyes. Go ahead and click that like button. Respond to your texts. Ask an extra question, and even more importantly, answer one. Consider answering the phone. You never know, what might follow is a spark that could lead to a beautiful interaction. Take the risk and see if it’s worth it to you. It’s worth it to me to find you, to hear you, and to let you know I did. Go for it.