July 14, 2016

Finding Authentic Connection in an Empty Inbox.

computer mouse digital

I remember the good old days when I would wake up on the weekend and have breakfast as usual, then open my computer to check emails.

There would always be something from someone.

On the best days, I would have some big, juicy emails from a dear friend who’d be bearing his or her soul to me. And I too, in my reply, would open myself.

Those days are gone. Like Highway 66 in the movie Cars, my inbox is empty, apart from some lonely and lost spam messages and subscriptions I had signed up for in bygone days.

Many of my closest friends do not write anymore—why is this?

One reason that comes to mind is that my friends and I are just at that age where we are engrossed in the pressing responsibilities of life: career and children. It’s not that we don’t want to keep in touch with one another—it’s just that we feel we don’t have time.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason. Another reason, as obvious as it is, is that social media has taken the place of “old fashioned communication.” If friends are posting things on online and looking at photos of one another, then they feel like a regular part of each other’s lives already, thereby lessening the need for individual communication.

Of course, there is always instant messenger. But the little box we are confined to can thwart profound thoughts, its limited dimensions encouraging brevity. In addition, because the messages are instant, they demand a quick response. This means people don’t think much before they write.

This could be seen as unbridled honesty, but could also lead to shallow discourse.

Traditional distance communication, on the other hand, can encourage more meaningful exchange. Writing a letter or an email encourages you to write more. When you express yourself you automatically want to extend your ideas.

Another thing is that email is less public. You are writing to one person or maybe just a small group. This is conducive to communication that is less impeded by the ego. When people are writing to a large group it can affect the way they express themselves. In fact, they may not express themselves at all but instead just perform to the audience.

An intimate email is between me and my close friend. No one is is watching. These are the types of emails I used to write and receive. I miss them. I miss that deep exchange with my friends. I’m not saying that social media is bad—it’s great to keep in touch with so many people so quickly. It’s also good to be able to track down old friends so easily.

But it has to be clear that social media should not replace one to one communication, and that’s the main problem.

People feel satisfied with viewing other’s photos, posting and replying to some comments and writing some brief messages. But I think there must be a part of them that yearns for deeper expression and more meaningful relationships. But what is it about an email that is more conducive to deeper discourse? It probably has something to do with two things: time and space.

Firstly is the time that people take to respond. Of course it is possible to respond very quickly to an email. But years ago when emailing came in, a lot of people didn’t check their inbox every day, and they knew that the respondent may not have either. For this reason, the responses were more thoughtful and thorough because there wasn’t as much rapid back and forth communication. Of course we still need quick emails to sort out logistics—but the longer, heartfelt ones can be a great way to engage from a distance.

Another reason is space. An instant message makes me feel quite claustrophobic. There’s no space to breath and no room to properly unleash my thoughts. An email on the other hand is more expansive and gives me open reign to express my mind.

So both the time and space constraints of social media can be conducive to shallow expression.

I’m not saying that people who use social media are shallow—I’m saying that social media may encourage people to engage with each other on a superficial level. It is great as a tool to stay in touch with people and network with those we don’t know!

So what can we do?

  • Go out of your way to communicate “old-school” style with people; for me, that might mean explicitly asking close friends to communicate via email.
  • Send group emails. One friend of mine who is volunteering in Guatemala is sending group emails to people, instead of putting everything on Facebook or on a blog. This makes sharing the experience more intimate.
  • Write pen-pal-style emails to those friends that don’t use social media. I do this with one friend—we don’t write often, but when we do, we write long, heartfelt emails to each other.

We can also challenge the parameters of online social media:

  • Don’t reply immediately to people. Have a cooling down period before you reply so that you have time to think about how to respond. Think for a while. Let your response ferment and mature, then send it.
  • Write longer, more thought out messages on instant messenger. Enlarge the messenger box to give you more room for your thoughts.
  • Resist the urge to post everything that happens to you, and save some more personal things for your inner circle of friends to chat about with in person.

In general, set aside time to write to your close friends instead of just relying on a chance whim to push its way through your busy schedule. Make “keeping in touch” a conscious and important priority.




Author: Peter Gyulay

Image: Rayi Christianson Wicaksono at Unsplash 

Editors: Renée Picard; Yoli Ramazzina

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