Reaching Out in the Real World

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Author Sarah Brokaw wonders: is technology crowding out our opportunities for authentic human connection?

Recently, I went to visit my friend Susie. A 41-year-old mother of two, she had just moved to Seattle when her husband accepted a new job offer. Over our usual glass of Pinot Grigio (ok, make that 2 glasses), we continued the deep, humorous dialogue that we started when we first met in 2003. Susie, who is known for her infectious giggle and her joie de vivre, now seemed more withdrawn and sad. Rather than positively reflecting feelings of excitement about her new life – which included space and air instead of a tiny basement apartment and the scent of Mexican jasmine instead of noxious odors emanating from nearby garbage cans — Susie kept dwelling on the disconnect she felt with people.

“When I go on Facebook,” she told me, “I feel that people lead these really exciting lives. And I start to compare the number of friends I have on my profile to other friends. I can’t figure out how so many people have so many friends. How is it possible to make that many connections?”

Right then, I realized that my friend, like many other women, lacked an essential ingredient in her life: a concept I call “true connectedness:” sharing life’s joys and sorrows together, in person. It’s related to, but separate from, “virtual connectedness” – the art of relating to each other through technology. While true connectedness is like eating a really juicy orange, virtual connectedness is like ingesting a Vitamin C supplement. I knew then that reminding Susie of what she did have would have been useless. Instead, I poured two more glasses of wine.

Since that moment, though, I have been reflecting upon the conversations that I have had with friends and the clients in my private practice — and have started to become acutely aware of their general frustration and anxiety about not feeling truly connected. In a time where texting, Facebooking, BBM-ing, and emailing are the main forms of communication, the humanity in personal relationships has been greatly reduced. I wonder: will colons and parentheses be the only way to express true joy after receiving the news about a friend/family member getting married? Or a “LOL” to express the appreciation of someone’s humor?

And what would happen to our country if we experienced an 8.9 earthquake and/or tsunami? In the event of an electricity shortage or a blackout, there would be no cell phones, no email. Hopefully, we won’t need a natural disaster to remind us of the importance of truly connecting with one another.

But at a recent weekend at a resort where I was appearing for my book tour, I was heartened to observe than many of the women there seemed to yearn to experience true connectedness in a safe environment. Whether they were voluntarily sitting at communal tables for meals to going on hikes with each other to chatting amongst themselves in designated “quiet room” areas where no cell phones were permitted, they seemed to authentically nourish each other’s souls by interacting with each other.

There are times when email and cell phone use is a necessity. But I believe there’s enough time in all our days to connect with each other without relying solely on technology. Today, I invite you to take the time to truly connect: whether that is taking a younger employee out to lunch to find out how she is navigating workplace labyrinth, gathering your friends for an informal wine tasting, or even making brownies for a neighbor, friend, or even a co-worker you suspect is going through a difficult time. Perhaps if you’ve lost touch with a childhood friend; write and mail her a little note. I bet she will open the envelope and, with delight, notice that your handwriting hasn’t changed since childhood.

I hope you’ll join me by truly connecting with someone and observe the difference in the way you feel. As my friend Susie might agree, the real world beats the virtual one any day.

Editor’s Note: Sarah Brokaw is the author of Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life. A licensed therapist with a practice in Beverly Hills, California, she holds a Master’s degree in social work from New York University, is a professional certified coach, and is active in philanthropy. The daughter of legendary newsman Tom Brokaw, she lives in California. Visit her at myfortytude.com

 

 

11 comments so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    The internet has disconnected us from each other at the same time it has connected us and we live in a world of short messages sent to each other and shared with friends and friends of friends on Facebook which I recently “joined” and find both fascinating and a little frightening. It is so impersonal. I used to spend hours on the phone with one friend. Now it’s short messages and things she posts that she likes. She has over 2,000 friends. In my “heydey” I “knew” a little over 400. People I talked to at least once a year. I have limited the number of friends. It basically is just a way for people to be able to contact me. Having been stalked not everone can contact me so easily since my number is listed under an assumed name.  What is frightening is the “friends of friends” and that of course takes the impersonal to the dangeruos. She doesn’t “know” all 2,000 plus people. So I wonder. And try not to worry.

    The “disconnect” really began with the cellphones which not only added an impersonal element to “lunch with friends” but an intrusive element as well.  I went to lunch with one friend who I couldn’t have a conversation with because her cellphone kept ringing. I finally went to the front desk and called her. “So where were we?” I asked. Only to be told to hold on for a minute. I hung up and left her to enjoy lunch with whoever was more important than I was. 
    I miss the long telephone calls, the thrill of the envelope in the mailbox, the lunches.  I’m afraid they are all things of the past.  

    • avatar Lila says:

      So I take it your lunch companion did not learn anything from eventually realizing that she was lunching with her phone rather than an actual person?
       
      You can come lunch with my friends!  Delightfully old-fashioned.  By that I mean, say, 1990 or so, before small shiny objects caused everyone to go around drooling on themselves.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        Former friend at that point. I heard recently she rear-ended someone while texting not that long ago. And she was probably still texting when the cops arrived. 

  2. avatar HauntedLady says:

    I understand what you mean. Fortunately, most of my friends and family use cell phones sparingly, if at all. As for e-mail and Facebook, I use them to find long lost friends and old classmates and to maintain contact with them. The 2000 friends thing is a technical quirk by which friends of friends of friends show up on someone’s friends list even though the original person has not added them or even knows them. I spent about 20 minutes one night deleting everyone I didn’t know. I’m sure they got over it. For those with whom I share more interests, I have VOIP phone service so I can call friends and family all over the country and chat for as long as I please without racking up a phone bill. I think technology, like most things, is as good or bad as you allow it to be. The hard part is knowing that you can take charge instead of letting the technology do so.

    • avatar Lila says:

      My FB account is wrapped pretty tight so as to avoid that “friends of friends” issue.  Only actual FRIENDS can see past my name and avatar, and there are fewer than 40 friends / relatives on my list.  It’s a nice way to keep up with what they are doing, so long as it stays limited.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      She’s in media. People who are “out there” attracts lots of friends who aren’t necessarily friends. But each one a potential contct at some point. Certainly another Facebook page to get things out on. 

      I assume vy VOIP you mean “internet phone” which I was introduced to in 2004 while the phone company was trying to figure out why certain calls were not traceable. Those calls on the internet get “lost in the transmission” unless you know the IP from which they originated. Things may have changed. But last time I checked, they hadn’t. Modern technology can’t keep up with itself in some ways. 

  3. avatar Lila says:

    “While true connectedness is like eating a really juicy orange, virtual connectedness is like ingesting a Vitamin C supplement.”
     
    More like eating a picture of an orange.  Not tasty, not nutritious, not satisfying.
     
    This is a phenomenon that interests and worries me as we have generations coming up now who NEVER knew what real connections were.  The comments on an article about how little attention we pay each other – or the real world – were revealing.  One commentator said that he divided his attention among texting, the web, and whoever was in front of him, and that was just how things are today.  Anyone who expected to get more than 1/3 of his attention – which should be more than enough, he thought – was being selfish and arrogant.  Can you imagine??  No idea of his age, but I expect he has not entered the workforce yet, because I would fire that attitude in a heartbeat.  My worry is – will people who think this way eventually seep into everything and overwhelm those of us who detest such behavior as rude and dangerous?  And how much are young people really learning in school or college, with their minds so scattered?
     
    Already, we routinely see people yakking on their phones instead of paying attention to the cashier right in front of them; texting while driving; updating Facebook while out on an intimate date in a nice restaurant.  And when they wreck, or fall down an open manhole, or sail off a cliff (as Heidi Montag’s plastic surgeon fatally did) – no one else seems to take a hint that perhaps gluing your smartphone to your hand, and your eyes to your smartphone, is not so smart.
     
    And it’s not just that physical disconnect from reality – it’s also the emotional disconnect from other people and failure to foresee consequences.  There have been several cases of hospital workers or law enforcement personnel posting horrific pictures of patients or crime victims, with nary a thought how that might affect others, or how it might lead to their own firing or criminal charges.  Teen sexting gone wrong, another rampant phenomenon, is also related to this general lack of empathy.  Like Snooks says – both connected and disconnected at the same time.
     
    I am thankful that many of my friends are not all that tech-savvy.  It is so pleasant to spend time with them over cold drinks out on their deck, or around a table with a nice meal – and we actually talk to each other without looking down into our laps every few minutes while our voices trail off… uh-huh…  uh… what?

  4. avatar Maggie W says:

    My elderly neighbor, at her children’s insistence , has a phone with her at all times because she lives alone.  (Good idea for anyone regardless of age.)  It is not her connect to friendships.  Every Wednesday she and five friends get together for dominoes or cards.  Everyone brings her own lunch.  These friendships have thrived for five decades.  I don’t have the patience to sit for games that last over an hour, but I love joining in sometimes.  Like a couple that has been together for many years, they finish one another’s sentences.  They cut each other off without attempting to be snarky…”  Yes, yes… we’ve already heard that story about Jolene’s daughter’s pool boy.  Again though, what is a pool boy?”   And the cards get reshuffled.

    I have thought about these golden friendships where they argue about which of them will have the biggest funeral draw.  So far, they agree it will be Miss Tootsie because she worked at the courthouse all those years.

    Had they the access to today’s  rapidly evolving technology five decades ago, would they still get together each week or just acknowledge each other warmly at the occasional wedding or funeral?

  5. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Had they the access to today’s  rapidly evolving technology five decades ago, would they still get together each week or just acknowledge each other warmly at the occasional wedding or funeral?

    _______________________________________________________________________

    The weekly get togethers are things of the past for most in our modern world.   We are, it seems, too busy.  Too busy being busy. Usually keeping up with emails and messages on Facebook and Twitter and all the other “social networks” that allow us to “reach out” and touch someone in ways never possible before. Which I wish no one had ever thought of.

  6. avatar J Holmes says:

    Actually I am very glad I found e-mail and facebook.  I am very social & love being in contact with my friends (people I really know) and this is an easy way to stay connected.  Once I got past high school I found I really did not like spending a great deal of time on the phone. College years and beyond my main means of communication with friends who were not local was letter writing which I did enjoy, however not all my friends had the time to sit and write so connections were lost through the years. I now am able to communicate with friends and relatives a continent away and with one aunt across the ocean.  I do make a point of getting together with local friends on a somewhat regular basis face-to-face which I prefer, but when not possible I find a short note via e-mail, facebook, or text quite satisfying. Because of technology I have found many “lost” friends and I am quite happy to be back in touch with them.

  7. avatar spinneo says:

    This is something I think about all the time!  I didn’t join facebook until 2 years ago, when we decided to move 250 miles away from NYC, where we’d lived for 16 years.  And some days of the week I feel that cyber friendships are almost worst than none at all.

    But I’m an adult and can get some perspective on the issue.  Who I really worry for are my children, who were not forced to live 30ish years in the real world first.  This is one of the main reason that I send them to a school where screen time is strictly discouraged.  I want my kids making eye contact for at least a decade before they’re exposed to the all-too-easy temptation of hiding behind an avatar.