I am one of the most talkative people I know. Were it not for my mom and a couple people I’ve met in my life who had an astonishing and effervescent ability to steamroll me in conversations, I might just be the most talkative person I know. Conversations with friends or the right strangers can regularly stretch for hours and I’m rarely the one to want them to stop or to have the internal discipline to quit on them when they’re going swimmingly. I rarely have any trouble filling hours upon hours of lecture time a week. I have even received an official mark of recognition of my talkativeness–my high school senior class even voted me “most talkative”. In first grade, my teacher nicknamed me “Mr. Whisper” for my poorly muted attempts to talk when we weren’t supposed to.
But for all this, I still suck at small talk. I feel a lot of social anxiety when I don’t know exactly what to say to someone. Sometimes this makes me more talkative because I’m desperate to fill the void and start trying anything I can think of to spark a response, like a comedian shrewdly running with every idea until they can draw one big laugh that covers a million bad jokes and lightens up people to be receptive to more laughing.
I am socially conscientious enough that (outside the classroom) I can’t just bore people by talking at them. So, I won’t disregard cues that people are uninterested in what I’m saying and just go on talking for my own satisfaction. At the first non-verbal cues I’m losing someone or going on too long, I’ll cut my spiel short. And when someone I’m trying to engage with is intractably resistant to my attempts to get us rolling in conversation, I will eventually give up and just feel my social anxiety in frustrated silence. I’ve been practicing sometimes just preemptively letting people who are resistant to small talk just have some silence and letting them open up at their own pace, with what they feel like talking about, and then that works to get the conversation I’m craving. This requires me to have more zen like patience than comes natural, but it’s very liberating and makes me feel good that they’re happy with what we’re talking about.
For someone who craves so much conversation, I crave an inordinate amount of time alone too. And I can find a lot of social engagements underwhelming. I love a good party–if I can spend the whole night in intense conversations. To me a party is a sequence of long conversations with rotating partners. If the music is too loud to talk or the people aren’t stimulating to talk to, it’s not a party, it’s usually tedium for me. And I often have to be careful about hanging out with multiple people at once since dealing with small group social dynamics is often where I’m the least comfortable. I usually just want to be with one person I love talking to at a time.
And I am jealous of my time to do solitary activities. I love clearing my schedule so that nothing can get in the way of writing, reading, absorbing myself in a serial TV show, etc.
But I love people and am restless and want to interact with them all day too.
The happiest era of my life in terms of friendship in the “real” world was in college because it was when I was able to balance these two sides of me almost completely at will. I could retreat and study whenever I wanted and then as soon as I wanted to hang out with cool people, all I had to do was step outside my door to find them hanging around. Or go anywhere public on campus. It was perfect. I almost never made plans with anyone. I was never good at making plans my whole life and never was on automatic invite lists either. I was too non-committal for groups of friends. They wanted you there all the time and they stopped inviting me when I turned down a couple offers. But in college I thrived because I could live with my peers and just join my friends at meals when I saw them, instead of having to planned in advance to meet them. I could talk to them whenever and wherever I found them and then move on to the next person and see them again whenever it was simply right again. It was through just so many of those occasional unplanned conversations that my most significant emotional and intellectual growth in college happened. Without them, I may not have processed, internalized or built upon a fraction of the facts and ideas we flew through in formal class settings.
It’s nearly impossible to have a “real world” social life like that for those not living on college campuses or able to focus full time on studying and savoring college social life. But social media makes that possible for me. It has the extraordinary potential to remediate the isolating aspects of modern adult life. It makes it so much easier for people to find others with their own quirky passions rather than have to make do for friends with whomever happens to be closest in physical proximity. It makes it immensely easier for marginalized and unjustly despised members of society to find each other, know they’re not alone, build solidarity and support and love, and band together to educate those in the mainstream. And it makes it easier to weave more meaningful relationships with more people more seamlessly into overwhelmingly busy lives. It makes it easier to have intellectually stimulating conversations, one on one or in big groups, with people from a wide range of backgrounds and knowledge bases without having to go anywhere or coordinate any schedules. It makes it easier to form the kinds of friendships that are conversation based.
And this is why social media is so absorbing for me. Internet forums, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, et al. provide the perfect balance of availability of people and distance. There is very little simple small talk. People like me can post our ideas, our observations, our feelings, our experiences, our joke ideas, etc. We can share news stories, opinion pieces, and memes that interest us or express our views, and find exactly the people who would want to talk about them with us to chime in and analyze them. Those not interested in that topic can just scroll past. This is perfect, because out of the huge net of friends I could talk to, it’s the ones who want to talk about that who will pick up the thread and those who don’t want it will ignore it. Conversation can be launched as thoughts and experiences come. And the conversation can include a wide net of interesting people without the anxiety causing “real” world group dynamics (though, of course, other frustrating group dynamics can emerge in social media).
And private message conversations with friends one on one are always available, always keeping me tethered to the people I care about, take comfort in, or are excited to start casually getting to know better in case friendship (or more even) might emerge. Wherever there’s a crevice in a day or an hour, it can fit a connection with another person or a whole group of them. Moments of exhaustion and rest can be filled with instant socialization without derailing all the productivity of the day.
Instead of having to tell the news of my life to each friend one by one or have them never know, my status updates make it so even people I rarely get to touch base with talk to me, when they do say hi online or in person, with a feeling of familiarity with how I’m doing that makes me feel really good. People care about me and are keeping tabs on me, and I don’t just mean employees at the NSA. I mean former students and former classmates who I would bump into around Fordham during my last semester who would smile excitedly and tell me all about how they were reading all my updates as I went through the grueling work of finalizing and defending my dissertation at long last. You could tell they were rooting me on. They were watching the whole process. Their congratulations were as hearty as someone enthusiastically greeting you after watching you play an organized sport or perform in a play. You can tell they felt they had an inside take on my experience the way that people who live with you do.
And the outpouring of support, encouragement, and confidence in me that I have received the last few months as I announced I was leaving adjunct teaching and as I began this process of transitioning my life has been profound to me. I’m living hundreds of miles from hundreds of my favorite people but I don’t feel remotely lonely. They’re always with me and so many others are always with me.
And there are so many people whose lives I have become invested in because of the daily trickle of updates that in time have turned into a flood of information and associations. Daily following someone who really expresses themselves and the kinds of little and big things that a close friend would over time gives you so much of a sense of who they are and what’s going on in them that over time they can be people you know comparably well to people in your “real” life. I feel like I know my one friend’s 5 year old daughter much better than my own 5 year old great niece because through my friend nearly every day I learn about the adorable things she said and did, the social struggles she encountered, the aspirations she expressed, the TV shows she’s obsessed with, etc. I love that kid like a niece and I’ve never met her.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against making real time for physical world interactions or saying they’re not important too or that everything valuable about them translates perfectly into social media as a total upgrade. Whenever meditating on any medium or way of arranging social interaction, we should take care to notice that it has unique contours that make uniquely special things possible, bring unique dangers, all while replicating a lot of good and bad things that transfer across multiple media with little damage. Our choice need not be between the “real” world and the online ones. We should figure out how to maximize what we get from each world and each medium at our disposal, and minimize the downsides of each. In this post, I just wanted to stick up for the often reflexively bashed social media worlds that have made it so I cannot remember feeling lonely for years and for making me feel like my favorite part of my college experience can be significantly replicated for the rest of my life.
If you would like more philosophical friendship in your Facebook feed, feel free to add me as a friend. I always love meeting new people.