Feeling a little sick of the empty ways we talk to one another these days? Find out some tips for reigniting that human connection we all need in our digital communications.
The inherent distance brought on by our digital lives has created a strangely disproportionate impact on the way we connect with one another. Most of us would be able to freely share stories about receiving a text or message on social media from an old acquaintance that appeared innocuous at first but turned out to be just a thinly veiled sales pitch.
On the one hand, we are more universally connected than we have ever been. The internet allows us to “hang out” with our buddies anytime, anywhere, no matter where they (or we) are in the world. On the other hand, we have lost sight of the meaning of the wordless mannerisms, non-pixelated facial expressions, body language, and gestures that come with true in-person contact.
Talking Isn’t Shopping and Shouldn’t be Based on Transaction
With that immeasurable loss has come a tendency to compartmentalize the people in our lives into unhealthy and restrictive boxes, such as “work colleague” or “weekend friend.” We all “talk” much more these days, but we certainly say far less. The etiquette ecosystem of the internet and the speed at which life/business occurs has eroded a great deal of our natural empathy and the human interest that should be the engine of all our exchanges.
As a result, transactional, rather than human, tones dominate our exchanges on Slack, Asana, HipChat, and every other messaging tool. We have made a curbside bodega scenario out of what should be an experience that genuinely lifts and feeds us on multiple levels: real communication, real connection.
Don’t Blame The ‘Rona
This is not just a quarantine quandary. Work and home boundaries have blurred long before COVID. The difference now is that the disconnect is diverse and no longer restricted to our digitized work lives. We are all in the same boat when it comes to our growing inability to truly see, respond to, and value one another’s full warts-and-all humanity in our connections.
Vulnerability is The New Vaccine
It’s no surprise that social media routinely pours gasoline on this already raging fire. We publicly celebrate vulnerability when it happens on a Hollywood screen, but find it difficult or nearly impossible to engage in the same level of openness within our own interpersonal interactions. If we want to begin to heal ourselves from this self-inflicted communication cut, we need to be Instagram “real,” not Instagram “ready” every day. The quality of life we rob ourselves of when we treat people, even absent-mindedly, as inanimate objects is costing us mental and emotional health. This manifests in everything from feelings of isolation to depression and anxiety.
Ultimately, social media has caused our society to become profoundly dishonest and self-interested. On the apps, pitching a multilevel marketing party behind a thinly veiled compliment about how cute your kids are is often seen as being the same as reconnecting with someone you have not spoken to in ages. Ask yourself: would I be talking to this person this impersonally (or at all!) if I didn’t have an agenda? If the answer to either of those questions is “no,” something vital has been lost to you in the social media sewers.
Check Yourself And Check in For no Reason
One of the hardest parts of this truth-in-communication problem is that internet culture itself encourages a lack of attention. Anonymity, facelessness, avatars, and highly curated web galleries that pass for believable truth only serve to make it less and less likely that anyone stops and thinks: “When was the last time I just sent someone a quick ‘hey, have a great day’ for no reason?”
We have become a culture of “me first” and “gimme gimme” without realizing it and have progressed to a place now where many quietly accept the normality of what would once be considered extreme rudeness. We need to collectively and consciously refocus on what it means to build real, honest, and healthy relationships, both at work and in our personal lives. Transaction should never be the spine of why we reach out to anyone, even if we may eventually have plans of doing business with that person.
Yes, Humans Really Are Cooler And More Valuable Than Money
Investing in people should be as automatic as investing in retirement savings because it is much more immediately essential to our well-being as humans. If we set aside automatic debits for our 401k’s because we know that long-term planning and sacrifice is necessary for our financial health, how can we not relegate the same level of care to our human companions? Wouldn’t most of us say that money is far less important than friends, loved ones, and colleagues?
Loads of scientific data abounds on how people live longer when they have strong relationships, in-depth friendships, and deeper connections. There are one thousand and one apps available that can instantly connect us with people we care about, whether it’s our cycling crew on Meetup or our graphics colleagues on Asana. Yet, we rarely make use of the liveliness these instant connections could bring to our days because we are “too busy” to slow down and really feel how much we need it. Ironically, we are forever reprimanding ourselves for screen time and the failure to disconnect, but we have no trouble living fully disconnected from the various people in our lives. Whether those roles are professional or personal, we owe them and ourselves so much more.
The good news: There is plenty we can all do to start changing this maladaptive pattern both at work and at home. Like any bad habit that needs breaking, a little consistency and determination can radically alter the level of satisfaction we feel in our day-to-day dynamics with one another. Here are some ideas on how to kickstart this change:
- Set alarms/alerts to reach out to your network at set times – Yes, you really can use apps like Any.do, Google Calendar, or Siri to help you schedule chat, catch-up, and hang sessions. I know, you’re thinking that scheduling check-ins may seem as impersonal as the impersonal bit we are trying to counteract. But it actually shows effort and respect for everyone’s busy schedules and simultaneously lets them know that you took time out of yours to check in and see how they were doing. Design thinking is not just for solution-minded leadership teams anymore. When colleagues can expect to hear from you every other Tuesday at 3 pm, for instance, that can become a time for deeper connections to be forged, plans made, and real conversations to occur. Remember, you will be the only one that knows the contact is automated and that never means the conversation will be. Your person in question will get that you care enough to call, and your frazzled brain will only be responsible for the chatting bit, not the remembering to chat part.
- Create digital contact “notecards” – Remember the old card catalog in the library? Even if you don’t (we’re looking at you millennials), you need one for your work friends, neighborhood acquaintances, and other connections that you may not see or speak to every day. Digitally or otherwise, create a space to write and store fun facts about someone in your circle. This could include kids’ and pets’ names, hobbies, funny stories you share with that person, or shared interests. Once you’ve got names and associated human elements in your digital rolodex, try to practice reaching out about that stuff. It’s the “tidbits” that make a person interesting anyway; don’t steal the fun from yourself by avoiding them in the name of “business.” Beyond that, doesn’t it just feel special and lovely when someone remembers something personal about you? More of this type of thing for the table, please. If you’re feeling like you “don’t have time” for details like that, remember that far more business has been conducted over light conversations and in distinctly non-businesslike environs than ever has happened in any board room.
- Gamify your gabs – Friends are meant to be fun. We are meant to laugh, to cry, and to have no clue together. Bring back the fun part of talking to another person, whether a work or personal friend, by making conversation a game. This can be a game you’re playing by yourself as you try to build these healthier communicative habits, or, ideally, a game between the two of you wherein you set funny rules for how and when you talk. See who can score “points for pokes” by checking in just to say hey or asking about their day or week. Have a weekly laugh over who interrupted whom at the most inopportune time. Create human moments by injecting some healthy competition into your interactions with these folks and see if you don’t feel, at the very least, more seen by Friday.
- Talk fun first always – Make a point to begin every interaction with anyone in your life by asking about family, sharing funny pet pictures, or reminding them of something hilarious you both remember. Make a concerted effort to kill the social media shallowness by plugging right into someone’s human essence from the start. Send them an ugly chin selfie you just accidentally took when you were epically failing at calling your kid’s teacher back. It feels so much better when someone messages on Slack asking about how someone’s weekend was than it does for that person to just dive right into “did you see my proposal?” Call unexpectedly with some possible get-together plans for next weekend, week, year, etc. Open by being open and see where that takes the conversation.
- Check in just because – You don’t need a “reason” to call or text someone. Pick up the phone or even schedule an impromptu Zoom or FaceTime just because you want to see their faces and hear their voices. Freely tell them that this is why you rang. You can even make a point to reach out to a particular friend every day, even if it’s nothing more than sending a funny meme or quick “you’re the best and have a great day.” We used to communicate like this all the time. Let’s make it “all the time” again until further notice.
Keeping genuinely connected in a world that seems to be growing ever more isolated is both nowhere near as easy as it once was and also easier than it has ever been. While we may not be as able to commiserate with our colleagues by the coffee pot in the break room every day, we have technology that lets (nay, encourages!) us to talk to them all the time and anywhere. Let’s make a point to start optimizing our screen time to include daily doses of real, heartfelt, messy, hysterical, wonderful human connection.