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First, They Came for the Romantic Relationships…

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Conversation has become a luxury. The Conversation by Kobe de Peuter.

I think of my generation as the one in which the meaning of “love” shifted and became larger (a good thing) but also more confusing (a bad thing). My female college friends and I both celebrated and mourned the loss of the clarity that most of our mothers seemed to have about what love meant. To them, it meant marriage.

To us, it meant so many other things. For one thing, marriage wasn’t available for those among us who were gay. Yet it was becoming clearer and clearer that gay love was a reality that needed to be acknowledged. And at the same time, our heterosexual relationships were undergoing massive upheavals—marriage, though we didn’t wish to deny it to our gay friends, seemed to many heterosexual women like a “property relationship.” We wanted our love to be free, not attached to economic or child-rearing promises.

The men I knew often took perhaps unfair advantage of this. Even when what they felt was clearly not love to them, they might claim to love us, but to just not to want to participate in the strangling institution of marriage. For the most part, women still wanted to be loved. This made for a lot of broken hearts, and many women eventually “got over” their liberation from marriage. Women and men (gay, straight, and bisexual) began to redefine marriage in multiple ways that (we hope) retain the goodness of an institution of intimate commitment and jettison the woman-down or gays-denied aspects.

Not that the redefining of romantic love is over, but lately what I find shifting more radically is the meaning of friendship.

This weekend I read an article in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche. It is one of many litanies lately about the dangers of our reliance on social networks on the Internet. Bruce also sent me a link of a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is mentioned in the Atlantic article and who has changed her once-upbeat take on the social network into a lament for the depth and spontaneity of real conversation.

These two commentaries bring so much to my mind. Mainly, they resonate. I myself can experience great loneliness in spite of the ever-enlarging circle of Facebook and blogging friends that I have. Blogging sometimes brings about more substantive exchanges, but even that is not real companionship.

And I have noticed that even my dearest friends no longer want to talk. Now, I am a “long-talker,” as my boss once told me, and I have tired people out for many years in that regard. But I feel more and more removed from this quick-take social interaction that has become the norm. I worry that my pleasure in and need for complex, digressive, even desultory conversation is becoming more and more anachronistic. My friends love me, and I love them, but we don’t have time to talk with each other. Conversation has become the ultimate luxury.

People don’t even like length in writing any more, as literary magazines shrink and shrink the length of manuscripts they will even consider for publication and as those of us teaching creative writing shrink and shrink the length of assignments we accept from our students because we have more and more students and therefore fewer and fewer hours to devote to critique of their work. We indeed are living in an aphoristic time.

Turkle, in her talk, reports that one 18-year-old, “who uses texting for almost everything,” told her “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn to have a conversation.” And it is true that sometimes my students today have a hard time participating in a workshop at all. I have even had a few students so afraid that I had to coach them outside of class about how to manage to participate in class. I had to teach them how to have a conversation.

So, another thing that came to my mind is the continuing value of the creative writing workshop model. In creative writing workshops, we still talk. This may be on its way to becoming a lost art, but it may also be something that we should emphasize as part of the value of a liberal arts education. Rare skills can become extremely valuable, after all. And the magic that can sometimes happen in a creative writing workshop (the minds melding, the contributions mixing, the starts and stops coalescing into something new that no one thought of alone) will never, I believe, be replaced by even the most detailed online critique.

That some 18-year-old, who probably has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, can have all those friends without conversations strikes me as odd. Yet I know that I have some friends on Facebook I have never met, or have met once or twice, or who simply “liked” some brief quip I made in response to someone else’s post.

And this phenomenon of friends we don’t really know is more and more being extended to relationships that have nothing to do with actual friendship and everything to do with business. I offer a mere two examples, though I could go on all day with more:

* I just recently had to purchase a new insulin pump. I’ll save the internecine details of this most recent set of frustrating health care exchanges for another time, but here I at least want to object to the constant reference by the insulin pump company to their being my “partner.” In fact, the company website refers to us as “partners for life.”

Forgive me if I view this with cynicism. I had to order a new pump because my previous one went completely kaput a few days after the warranty expired, not because I desired any of the minimally new features. (Most of which, I am finding, have created a kind of neurotic, nagging, numbing effect with lots of extra alarms.) Since the new pump takes a while to “process,” the company offered a loaner pump for the duration. However, they informed me that if I canceled my order, and didn’t buy my next pump from them, I would be charged $3600 for 90 days with the loaner.

If this is a “partnership,” it’s a coercive one.

* At least the pump company still uses a neutral word like “partner.” In other business news, however, Brighthouse has launched a new advertising campaign in which they pull out all the stops and go right to calling themselves my “friend,” your friend, everybody’s friend. That friendship could be offered to all comers for the price of subscribing to Brighthouse services totally perverts the meaning of the word, of course.

At first the only clue to the identity of who was paying for these prime-time and expensive Hello Friend ads was the combination of blue and yellow in the text portion of the ads. Now, they are gradually introducing ads that move from soft-touch pleasantries to out and out courting. Brighthouse wants to be your friend, the ads say.

How, I wonder, can anyone take this seriously?

Bruce tells me that the campaign is likely a response to the horrible customer service reviews that Brighthouse has received in the past on Internet complaint sites. “Brighthouse,” he said, “gives notoriously bad service. There are all kinds of comments like, ‘DirectTV is bad, but Brighthouse is the worst.’”

In fact, the campaign may actually indicate an actual change in policy that could be important. This would never have occurred to me if the folks who helped put in our new flower and garden beds last week hadn’t accidentally cut our Brighthouse cable. When we realized what had happened, I thwacked myself in the forehead repeatedly, cursing the fact that I’d mistakenly believed all the cables were away from our dig areas. How much would they have to dig up again, and how much would this foolish oversight cost us?

Within 24 hours, the repairman came, made a quick fix, and charged us nothing. I was so relieved not to be punished that I have to admit I felt almost like this man was my friend.

The ads, however, have made me feel simply that the world is more pathetic than ever. I wondered if it’s true that people are just getting more and more disconnected from other real humans and more lonely than ever. That such ads could be deemed effective seems to coincide with the research that Turkle and others report about heavy Facebook users being lonelier than those who use it less or not at all. And with the fact that more and more people use it regularly.

In addition, I think it’s a documentable fact that more and more of our daily needs are met through these large corporate entities. There are few family-owned corner grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hardware stores, and pet food stores, so we don’t have even the same kind of superficial acquaintances that we know over a long period of time and that might bloom into something like genuine friendliness, even if not intimate knowledge. I visit the same stores over and over again and hardly ever see the same clerk twice because they are chains that move people around and that people leave at the next best opportunity.

We also have witnessed the rise of various kinds of stealth marketing, where people who purport to be our friends are actually (or also) trying to use us for financial ends. To me, these practices are particularly heinous because I like to know when a spade is a spade. But many young people today live lives much more merged with advertising than an oldster like me is comfortable with. They see nothing wrong with defining themselves with logos, with trying out free sample products and sharing them with friends, and so on. For them, there is no private sphere.

(And there are so many how-tos and analyses of these kinds of marketing that I can’t find a single link to represent them, but if you’re interested, the key terms are stealth marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing. And don’t forget product placement!)

These secret agendas also exist in terms of pyramid schemes like Amway, Landmark Forum, and Stargate. Whenever someone approaches you with some ulterior motive, there’s a kind of strain. This person is not approaching with an open mind or with curiosity, but with a pre-determined agenda: to get you to join so that they can get a discount on their own self-help seminars.

One of the most disturbing trends noted by Stephen Marche in the Atlantic is this: “In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

And so we also pay others to listen to us. Marche also reports on the dramatic rise in the numbers of psychologists, other kinds of therapists and counselors, and life coaches. This marketplace is more legitimate—at least most of the time you know what you are paying for and it’s about your own needs, whereas the stealth marketers are lying to you to meet their needs. But sometimes even that gets confusing. In my dealings with Landmark Forum, I encountered several members who had also become independent life coaches—they had little in the way of credentials I would recognize for advising others about their lives, but there is no licensing necessary for life coaching. Even in the realm of professional “friends,” the stakes can get confused these days.

What many commentators have begun to notice, including Stephen Marche and Sherry Turkle, is that what many of these online friendship forums promote is a kind of uber cheerfulness, an editing of our personal lives into success stories and personal p.r. campaigns.

I think, however, this trend goes far beyond and certainly doesn’t originate in online social networks. Landmark Forum, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Kris Carr, and the whole host of self-help gurus have over the past decade moved so deeply into the superficial tenets of positive psychology that this kind of self-editing has become ubiquitous. Everyone, nowadays, fears being a “drag,” whether in person or online.

Marche’s article thankfully makes this connection, and he cites a recent study by Iris Mauss and others at the University of Denver that finds that valuing and seeking happiness can doom people to disappointment. Mauss and her fellow psychologists all consider themselves to be working in the arena of positive psychology, and in other writings that I found, she seems a true believer, even in “positive neuroscience.” They apparently expected happiness to be like other goals—those that value academic achievement usually make better grades in school. But they found the opposite—at least in situations of low stress, the valuation of happiness correlated with lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher symptoms of depression.

So, I believe that what Stephen Marche points out about Facebook’s pitfalls is actually something that spreads beyond the online environment. I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question whether our online habits have created the changes in our psyches concerning friendship, but I do know that it’s not only online that this issue exists.

However, in a live chat about his Atlantic article, Marche just now referred to another article he wrote—for Toronto Life—about his institution of a Digital Sabbath. I know that I agree with him fully that simple pleasures have become filled with distraction. He mentions playing Legos with his son; for me, this shows up in a variety of ways. How often do I sit quietly with a cat on my lap without checking Facebook and email on my phone every few minutes? How many nights do I wake up and cuddle with a Scrabble game rather than with my sleeping husband? How often when I’m talking on the phone with my mother am I also answering emails?

It seems a supreme irony that we learn so much on Facebook and other online forums and yet also isolate ourselves this way. We won’t give them up, and doing so even on a Sabbath seems unlikely for many. I do hope, however, that we can strive to use them more thoughtfully. No doubt, the meaning of “friend” has changed permanently. But it’s good to remember what’s at the core of it. Else, I fear, friendship will see a worse fate than the changes wrought in the world of romantic love. Sex, after all, still cements romance in the physical world. Friendship may not have such a tangible hold.

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4 responses »

  1. Hi Crybaby, thanks always for your friendship and wife-ship to my friend. I don’t know all about the marriage stuff above, but the friendship stuff is indeed hard work. It is really hard work to really listen and be a good friend, to be there for someone, in good and bad, which is what I believe is a friends true role. It is really hard to have the time for “conversation” and especially thoughtful or various angles. It is almost impossible to keep up with all the angles, but we have to try and more than talking, often listening is required?

    Reply
    • Absolutely, Harold, listening is a big part of any conversation and any friendship. Your comment makes me think about how Facebook encourages the counting of friends, and it’s truly quantity over quality sometimes. Again, not that I don’t value the network, but I think we are all still working out how to make it a part of friendship. And I want to say thank you, too, for your long friendship with Bruce. He really values it.

      Reply
  2. Right on target about the Brighthouse thing. I think it may have been the “Hello Friend” campaign that finally sent me over the edge to ditching my hugely overpriced cable service. And I could join you in bemoaning the misuses and overuses of technology (although I’m not altogether dysoptian about it) and certainly do join you in the desire for more langorous and meaningful conversation. I wonder, however, how much of this is really about technology and how much of it is rooted more directly in capitalism (not that the two can be completely disentangled). My lack of time for the langorous conversations I desire is most directly related to the ever expanding work week and not (in my own case at least) in some sort of psychic inability to unplug. Keep the columns coming 🙂

    Reply
  3. Shelley,

    Absolutely, I believe that our lack of relaxed conversations has a lot to do with the expanding work week. And the expanding work week has a lot to do with technology. We always new that the academic life included work during all vacations, but we never imagined how email would expand our teaching hours to 24/7. And I agree that much of this is rooted in the extreme form of unregulated capitalism we live within.

    I’m not a complete Luddite. I have regained some sense of a normal kind of eating flexibility with the insulin pump, and I have found a great sense of connection through the blog. So, there are differences in how we use the technology. But I do find it harder to unplug, and I find it nearly impossible to get Bruce to. Sometimes I wish we had to!

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Reply

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