True Friendship in the Era of Small Talk and Rants
My son recently approached me about attending a leadership camp this coming summer – one that would take up most of the free, bumming around time he’ll have left after we check the boxes on visiting family, hitting the beach and sending him to a week of Scout camp.
“Why won’t you just hang out at the pool?” I asked him. I lived for those days during my own summer vacations. Sharks and minnows, Marco Polo, gorging on fudge pops and french fries at the snack bar. Isn’t that living the dream?
But apparently, it’s not.
He told me how he just didn’t like going to the pool anymore because his usual cohort of summer friends spend all of their time staring at their phones. “It’s boring,” he said. He remarked on how hard it is to find someone to really talk to.
That hit home, because for the past few years I’ve been having my own problems connecting with peers.
Like him, I’ve always been a best friend sort of person who goes a mile deep and an inch wide. This trait is evidenced in my marriage, my faith, my relationships with my children, my choice in career, even in my daily work-outs for God’s sake – I’m a yoga person.
If you like to go for long walks that are as as meandering as our conversation – call me up. If you’re the type who almost exclusively likes to surround herself with people you can drop trow and pee in front of – I’m your girl.
I feel oddly out of place at my kids’ sporting events, where small talk rules and a personal question or observation is often treated like an STD. There are times I simply go hide in my car, listen to music, make notes about a book or essay I’m writing. Anything not to have to sit out on the field, waiting for the game to start, and having the same conversation about the coaches, the schedule, the damned weather.
It occurred to me that if my own kid is longing for deeper attachments in his life – my kid, your average thirteen year-old boy who loves video games, boobs, fart jokes and all manner of teen superficiality – then maybe we’re not alone in feeling this void.
And it’s not as if we’re not talking at all. In fact, what’s curious to me is while millions of chats have sprung up in social media, ranting, over-communicating in excruciating detail, our face to face interactions have become, as my son observed, “boring.”
But I’m not picking on social media here. Even if I was, it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future, so we need to figure out how to manage its presence in our lives, make it work for us.
Because in a lot of ways, it does.
Social media has brought friends long gone back into my life. I’ve met a couple of people on Facebook who I would love to get to know better, and feel could be real friends of mine if only we could sit down and have a long talk somehow. Social media has given me a virtual water cooler to hang around with colleagues – a not insignificant thing for a writer, as we spend so much of our time alone in our home offices.
What social media has done very effectively is brought many, many acquaintances into my life. People with whom I exchange fun comments and family pictures. I get to see a shot of their romantic Valentine’s date at a local crab and lobster joint, admire their children’s accomplishments, learn about a cause that is dear to their hearts. Not knocking it.
It’s just that what social media has not brought into my life, has been the sort of intimate connection that forges a true bond – one that facilitates exposure and genuine comfort. A Facebook friend will not hold you after you mother has died – either physically or metaphorically. You might receive a swell of well meaning “so sorry for your loss” posts, but a heartfelt comment, a long missive, a response that takes thought is rare in that format.
That in and of itself would be fine if I didn’t fear those closer ties were becoming increasingly more rare in our lives. True friendship takes time, trouble. That is the magic elixir that deepens a relationship and turns an acquaintance into something more.
With so many distractions and cotton candy friendships to keep us propped up, give us that hit – like a line of emotional cocaine – I wonder if we all aren’t becoming more fragile than we realize. Unhinged in a way we won’t discover until something big goes down. And when it does, we might find ourselves surrounded not by a community of caring hands, casseroles and telephone calls, but “likes.”
On my most pessimistic days, I fear true friendship is gasping for breath beneath the fluff of disposable comments and “shares,” much the way courtship and love seem to have experienced a downgrade in the era of Tinder. Convenience is the stuff that networks are made of, not closely-knit communities.
Then a few months ago, my friend Jessica called me after nearly a year of both of us being too busy to really make the time to talk. She’d left her cushy job at Google and started her own tech company, developing an app she named Rolltape. She told me how she wanted to create a means to really nurture and facilitate friendship among people again. Like me, she’d lost touch with too many friends when she moved to the other side of the country, and making new friends – real friends – had been a spotty venture for her.
She also thought I might make a good beta tester for her product. Rolltape, you see, is a sort of audio version of Instagram that incorporates voice messages, pictures and music. It’s “for your inner circle,” as her company’s tagline contends.
“That’s awesome,” I said. I told her how inspired I was by her guts and I meant it. Jess has three kids and is the bigger breadwinner in her household. She gave up a lot of creature comforts to stick her neck out and start a business. And I know in pornographic detail how hard it is to start and run a company, having done it myself.
What I didn’t tell her was that I had absolutely no interest in participating in another social media outlet. What I also didn’t tell her was that I didn’t think a social media app – by its very nature – was capable of cultivating intimacy on a broad scale. Social media, as far as I could see, was about expediency, entertainment and self promotion.
But in the cycle of sound bite and photo that’s part of the DNA in most social media applications, I’d forgotten about a crucial missing element.
Voice is a powerful thing. It is as nuanced an instrument as the eyes. With a voice, I feel as if I’m hearing a secret that is just for me. The voice of a friend makes me feel not merely connected, but interconnected. A voice message, I’ve found, is the antithesis of the selfie.
My friend Ella’s voice has the ability to set the tone for my whole day.
Her voice – thoughtful, caring, filled with good humor – has illuminated me in a most authentic way about the death of her father when she was eighteen, being raped shortly after, her soul-crushing first marriage, her daughter’s struggles with bipolar disorder, finding true love with the man who has been her husband for the past eighteen years. In turn, I’ve revealed to her the continuing fall-out from my own daughter’s bout with cancer, the love story between me and my husband, how difficult it’s been to be a good daughter since my mother moved in with us, the types of books I want to write, and the way I grapple with friendship in my adult life. How my approach to all of these things feels at odds with the rest of the world.
Ella and I live on opposite sides of the country, and talk, on average, about once a week. I feel a thrill when she reaches out, knowing that our conversation will help sooth some of my more raw emotions, and provide me with a place where I feel I belong.
And I have never met Ella. She’s a Rolltape friend.
In my few short months as a beta tester, I’ve heard the father of a friend explain his increasing anxiety about death, had intense, but respectful political discussions (who knew such a thing still existed?) with people from all sides of the political spectrum, and pondered the use of Botox with professional women – all amidst a backdrop of samba music and ridiculous crinkled forehead selfies. Above all, I’ve been reminded that I not only have dear friends, but am still able to make them.
We have become a devoted tribe – anxious for each other’s messages, unafraid to ramble on. No winky-faces necessary – we can hear each other’s tone. We go out of our way every day, truly listening, contributing, and in the process have recaptured a sense of camaraderie that had seemed to slip away from us.
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