Sunday, February 12, 2012

New Intimacies

It's the norm to complain about how technology makes our interactions less humane; how our conversations, now digitized, are losing meaning;  how we've lost the ability to speak to one another, to attend, to engage. We claim that there's no improving on a tete-a-tete, on physical proximity and personal contact, that relationships built otherwise are brittle and doomed to superficiality.

Except that they aren't.  

There are places you can go in a phone conversation, with a text message, or in a chat window, that you cannot visit when you meet someone face-to-face.
Some people, unfortunately or otherwise, are just more engaging online. Meet them, and you find that the banter has lost its sparkle, the chatter, its crackle. But it's not just about a person's personability, it's also that online conversations have a dynamic that's all their own. Abrupt, staccato, with their own patterns of show (:P) and tell (Check out this link!), easily calibrated to suit different degrees of intimacy - something that's often tricky to manage in person - web-chats are an easy place to start a friendship and discover common ground.
Telephonic conversations are another matter entirely - they require attention and effort, and strip away the distraction and conversational fodder that being together in one place at one time provides. There's no telephonic equivalent for 'brb' or 'lol' and it's next to impossible to fake interest - either you're engaged and amused, or you're not. Talking to someone on the telephone, I have often found myself wondering whether I have something to say, or whether I have the willingness to listen. If I find myself scrambling, it's not a good sign - for better or for worse, the telephone has often served as a litmus test for many of my friendships.
Often, but not always. Telephonic conversations with relative strangers can often have mystery and intrigue.  All too rarely, I've found myself listening to the cadences of an other's voice, sensing their mood, and finding myself drawn into an unexpected exchange of bon-mots and witticisms. The conversation goes somewhere it wasn't supposed to, doors open and close, and both parties put down the receiver, smiling. It's a fleeting, temporary intimacy that is its own reward, and it's hard to replicate face to face.
Text messages also have a wink-wink-nudge-nudge quality that's all their own.  They allow you to act on impulse and to set up private channels of communication in otherwise crowded rooms. I've lost count of the number of times that colleagues and I have silently commiserated with one another in dull meetings, or the occasions on which I've traded quips with friends at boring events. With text messages, you can share asides instantaneously, and invite someone to share an experience or an observation. You're whispering,  across the room.  
There are many theories about how personal space, body language, signalling, mirroring and posturing are the building blocks of our relationships. People say so much to one another, whether or not they are speaking  - and it is only in person that these conscious and unconscious conversations can be had in their entirety. But the truth is that we're adding nuance to every gadget and tool that comes along - creating new intimacies and spaces for connection that have a charm of their own. Better to navigate them cleverly, and exploit them for what they're worth, than to lament the passing of what's older and quainter.

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