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The Tech of Friendship

An honest answer is the sign of true friendship.
~ Anonymous

My daughter and I were talking recently about friendship and it struck me how geography and the Internet have changed the nature of communication between friends. The neighborhood pot luck, the regular exchange of letters and once a year visit dominated my grandparents' generation. In my life, letters have gone the way of email and paperless post notifications of everything from meetings to weddings, while getting together is a post-business day get-together at the gym or bar or the once in a decade class reunion. In my daughter's twenty-something generation, the Internet rules: Facebook or Twitter creates an online connection. Friends are available for updates throughout the day, but as my daughter commented, visits grow far and few between once college ends, careers begin, and close friends scatter to distant locations.

So what does all this mean? Are we more or less connected in a meaningful way? Oddly, I think it's a mixed-bag. We are curiously more connected with the professional colleague, the mere acquaintance, the long-distant friend. Yet perhaps less deeply present with immediate family and loved ones, because so much of our relationship gets squeezed into brief status communications throughout the day. Some of my friends speak more to their spouses by text message than at home after dinner. A girlfriend of mine recently remarked that she wasn't surprised she'd broken up with her boyfriend by text massage because it started on a text.

I think that while the convenience and ease of modern communication is a plus, the loss of face to face contact costs us something. As anyone will attest who has met up with a treasured friend at a street corner or a coffee shop - nothing replaces the joy of laughter, the meaning in a glance, the quick touch of a hand, a goodbye hug. As a society we are in danger of becoming overly cerebral: navigating our entire lives through the barrier glass of technology, absent of the importance of presence. This is especially difficult in times of stress or need or disagreement. How do you really read between the lines of a 140 character Tweet? Determine the sarcasm, gentleness, wryness, or anger embedded in a Facebook update, a text? The formality of condensed sentence structure alone can derail a message.

My daughter has observed that a number of disagreements amongst her friends begin on social media, spread like wildfire through their networks, and abruptly finish with a communication "block." Some disagreements resolve only if the friends involved remain on speaking terms, and given a chance encounter. Direct exchanges blow up into hurt feelings. Why? Because tech messages are not couched in the interpersonal. Digital grammar (or its lack) simply hits your smart phone or computer in-box. You read that succinct message and feel a surge of confusion. What are they really saying here?

While a true friend is an honest one, social media communication is without important physical cues; nonverbal signs which allow us to read between the lines and determine the real message in the medium (apologies to Marshall Mcluhan here). And no, emoticons do not count. A gentle scolding might read as a blunt criticism in print. Wry self-deprecation can read bitter; the overwhelmed as indifferent. The answer is to remember we are people. We are feeling beings. By all means let's use technology to keep the connections open - and our voices, hands, and hugs to send voltage down the wire.
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