“Do you know this guy?” an online colleague asked me (via email) in reference to somebody who contacted her about working together and had introduced himself by saying he’d been referred by me.
I couldn’t recall the guy, and I hadn’t directly referred him. His email to her was brief and a little vague, and in this day and age when website owners are assailed by countless unsolicited requests, his email looked like it could be yet another in this realm (albeit a creative one that was more than blanket spam).
(See the hilarious post The Pitching Game for an idea of the outlandish proposals that land in our email boxes daily.)
So what did my colleague do? She sent a scathing reply on the assumption he was a spam marketer, telling him where he could stick his proposal.
Turns out, I did know the guy. (Whoops.) He was a reader I had corresponded with at some length a year ago, but I had no archives of this conversation which is why I couldn’t recall if I knew him.
He was surprised and offended by my colleague’s reply, and after a little peace-making on my part, they apologized to one another and ensued their communication.
But this got me to thinking: at what point do we feel like we have a “relationship” with somebody we only know online? My reader felt a genuine connection to me, and although my emails to him were heartfelt (and lengthy!), I also field about 50 emails per day and am hard-pressed to recall ones from over a month ago, much less a year ago.
Our “relationship” had endured time in his eyes longer than it had in mine.
What Constitutes a “Relationship”?
If you only know somebody online, to what extent is it a relationship (platonic or otherwise)?
People meet and fall in love online regularly, but I don’t think it’s until they meet in person that it truly becomes a romance.
Or am I old fashioned?
The nature of communication is changing dramatically, so maybe then too, should our definition of relationships.
Text vs Talk
Studies are showing that adolescents (the emerging “tech” generation – and the world’s future) actually prefer to text each other than interact in person. It’s not a stretch; I’ve seen rooms full of teens all silently mesmerized by their smartphones.
This isn’t just about teens either; we’re all culprits. My surprising moment in time on a Toronto subway last year was testament to the fact that we all seem to prefer to plug in and zone out, rather than look up and interact with our environment.
I remember staying with a couple who were in the midst of some domestic difficulties. We all had online businesses, and each day we would set up our respective “offices” in the same room together and dive into our laptops. Unbeknownst to me, most of the time they were having massive arguments – via instant messaging – right in front of me!
I would have thought that leaving the room and actually verbally hashing it out would have been better for the relationship, but I’ll also admit that this isn’t the first couple I’ve known to prefer the written word over physical verbal communication.
The Evolution (De-Evolution?) of English
To facilitate communication in 140-character bites, status updates, texts, and emails, abbreviations have become the norm. Common ones like LOL have even made it into dictionaries, and the ever-present smiley face is becoming an accepted part of online communication – even in professional emails.
But what does this mean for the English language? When high-school and college graduates feel it’s appropriate to put smiley faces and common abbreviations in cover letters when applying for professional jobs?
Losing the Art of Interpersonal Communication
What will business meetings look like when they are led by the emerging generation who currently prefers not to communicate in person?
Is online social networking replacing physical networking?
What of the proverbial cocktail party?
Is interpersonal communication no longer important? How will marriages survive when couples aren’t comfortable actually talking about things with one another?
Isolation, Nomadic Life, and The Global Community
I’m in this too.
And in living a life of no fixed address for over five years now, this global community of readers and online colleagues has been a life line, sometimes more than I’d like to admit.
It’s this online community that makes it easier for nomads to stay in touch with family and friends, create new online relationships with people sharing common interests, and also give them a sense of familiarity when everything else around them is foreign.
I say “they”, but I’d be lying if there weren’t some of “me” in this.
I spent a good chunk of my summer in Switzerland in relative isolation, needing some personal retreat and reflection time (and contending with the largely miserable weather that much of Europe saw this summer). But the onset of loneliness didn’t hit me as hard as I might have suspected, due in large part to constant online communication with readers, family, and friends.
The online world has brought us all geographically closer together – hence the increased prevalence of and opportunities for location independent people to live nomadic lifestyles.
This is a blessing, that has enabled me to travel the world full-time for over five years and counting.
But I also think it’s a slippery slope, and online relationships are not a substitute for interpersonal relationships.
Where is the line? When do digital nomads breach the boundary between engaging the world, and forsaking it for the world contained in their laptops?