Monday, May 7, 2012

Intimacy, Separateness and Social Media

Recently I attended a lovely outdoor dinner party hosted by friends in my neighborhood. About 25 people were there, most of them familiar acquaintances. It was interesting and fun to "catch up." And I met some people for the first time. The weather cooperated, and I had a good time.

Talking with these people, I was reminded of the limitations of intimacy. All of us assume that we "know" each other; but realistically, we know very little about what we've been doing each day or what's going on now. If there are issues, things going on behind closed doors, we're not privy to it. That's how life works; our separateness is a very real thing.

It's true even when it comes to best friends and family members - even immediate family. For example, do parents really understand what's going on in the lives of their teenage children? Most don't. I've never met a parent who did. It's not that we're too busy, uncaring or ignorant. It's just that we lead separate lives, and the people around us don't really know everything that's going on.

My eyes were opened to this reality at a reunion with some of my best high school buddies. We were close back then, but I learned that we really didn't know each other very well. And after 40 years, we had no idea who these familiar guys in old people's bodies were. If we were curious, we'd have to try get to know each other all over again. And that would take us only so far.

We try to stay in touch with our family and best friends. Our relationships depend on it. And of course, time spent in-person, face-to-face is the best way of maintaining intimacy. Everyone knows that.

But spending this kind of quality time with all these people is hard, if not impossible.

So we talk on the phone. We hear the real voice, even the tone of voice, to get most of what they're thinking and feeling. It's a real-time back-and-forth conversation.

Also, there's chat or instant messaging. You don't get the nonverbal message, which the experts say is the major part of the communication. But at least the back-and-forth communication is real-time, or almost. No talking, just typing. So this digital form of communication is one more step removed than a phone call from being with the real person.

Even further distanced are email, texting, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc. These messages are essentially brief, delayed in time and practically devoid of emotional content. They call it social media, but it's the least social of all the media. It's almost like a way of communicating without having to really connect or communicate much. In other words, it' a way to have a relationship without the intimacy - a way to stay in touch with an acquaintance without ever revealing your true self or getting to know the person.

I've used social media to stay in touch with certain people I've never met - for years. Some of these folks seem like interesting people, the kind of people I'd like to know better. I've even talked on the phone with some of them - our most revealing interchanges, by far. I would even love to meet them in person sometime - a huge step towards intimacy.

But as I've said before, there's this impenetrable separateness that limits how intimate we can be.

I think social media is popular with teenagers because they're experimenting with relationships, and this is a way to do it without the risks of true intimacy. Also, inexperienced as they are in relationships, they're fooled by these shallow tweets and posts, believing they're a form of intimacy.

I guess I'm a retro old fart when it comes to texting. I participate in social media, but I have no illusions about it. I have my iPhone, but I don't send text messages. To me, texting is the most impersonal and distanced medium devised so far. You type out these little word bites without having to actually converse.

Like a few other trends in the culture, I'm going to pass on this one. If you have a cell phone and want to communicate, don't text me. Call me. Maybe we can have a real-time conversation. If I'm not available, leave a recording of your voice. I want to hear your voice; I enjoy getting the nonverbal part of the message.

Besides, there's something ridiculous about sending a message one character at a time, using my big fat thumbs on those teeny-tiny keys. It reminds me of 100 years ago, when the fastest way for people to communicate long-distance was the telegraph, where you clicked a key to send a two-line message one character at a time.

I can't make myself do it.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use images purchased from

2 comments: said...

Hi, I agree with you on this subject because I do not thing sending text messages has anything to do with intimacy. It is not the way to have a real conversation or intimate relationship when you are an adult. I thought I am the only one who thinks like this, but it looks like I am not. Thank you for sharing with us.

Kabolobari said...

Hmm, very sincere. I love the non-verbals too. In fact, I shudder that even spouses are prepared to keep distance just because they can text or twitter of facebook-post I love you and believe it to communicate!

Still, some things can only be texted. All in all, every relationship must be questioned for its purpose and thus its boundaries. Where intimacy is a must, it should never be denied with so-called social media!

Thanks for the post, Denny!