The British New Wave musician Howard Jones, on his breakthrough second album “Dream Into Action,” recorded an awkwardly titled song “Like To Get To Know You Well” that captures a sentiment I tend to feel very often. One of the benefits of being a reasonably friendly and outgoing person is that one tends to make acquaintances fairly easily–since it only requires receptiveness to friendly overtures to develop that basis of friendship. Going from friendly acquaintance to deep friend is generally a process that takes some time, as I tend to be rather skittish about intimacy by nature, whether that is physical or emotional in nature. This generally means that initial friendliness is generally an overture to a lengthy process of getting to know someone well, a process that often lasts years, and that tends to build deep feelings of affection even across the lengthy distances that so strongly influence my life.
A common thread of these acquaintances and how they develop is that I am vastly more comfortable talking on the computer than I am face to face. Being a somewhat anxious and nervous person by nature, I find a great deal of personal conversation very awkward, especially when one realizes the serious issues at the basis of personal conversation. There is always a great deal of concern for me over the proper boundaries of conversation, and a general difficulty with public places as a suitable venue for the sorts of in-depth conversations that naturally result from my nuanced answers to even the most basic questions. It is easy to type out such nuanced responses and the necessary lengthy explanations to obvious personal questions, and hard to say them when one feels nervous or is around strangers who really do not need to know my personal business. As a result, I frequently face the issue of knowing people very well online, and having had often very deep and very personal conversations with people I have never had any close personal interaction in person, which is extremely awkward.
I suppose in many ways that this phenomenon is not unusual. Concerns of distance and time (and expense) have made epistletory friendships and relationships rather out-of-date for most people, whereas even during my teenage years at the start of the World Wide Web I carried on quite lengthy and frequent postal friendships with people in far-flung areas. By and large, the desire to keep up friendship with people across the distance at minimal cost has tended to encourage conversation by instant message and e-mail, or even audio and video chatting where possible. The audio and video chatting is at least as personal as telephone conversation and allows for an understanding of the nuance of tone. Written communication, even when it is filled with smiley faces of various kinds, does not often capture the same degree of understanding of where someone is coming from. But even more than this, the greater intimacy one can gain from communication at a distance can prove to be a barrier to developing closer relationships in person, given that one’s knowledge about a person may be deep while one’s familiarity with the person may be very slight. How to overcome this awkwardness is something that I only know how to do with great time and effort where this is available, assuming that the desire for genuine interpersonal friendship is shared by the other party as well.
I do not think it is just to blame technology for the social awkwardness that is felt by many people from my generation. Successful personal interaction is a skill that like any must be practiced, and some of us start dreadfully behind when it comes to developing comfort with other people in the midst of overwhelming external stimuli as well as a large dose of shyness and nervousness and fear of failure or embarrassment. Even where these barriers can be overcome by native friendliness and curiosity about others, a conversation is a dance between two people, where each has to be sensitive of the other and not step on any toes as one moves gently in rhythm with the other. It is not accidental for me that a dance is often equally a conversation, as it provides a suitably intimate bubble within a social gathering to get to know others a little better and encourage gentle affection in harmony with the mood and music. This sense of harmony and comfort is generally difficult for me to find in social occasions unless food or music is involved. I suppose the ability to focus on something outside of the interaction itself tends to make it less stressful, as I am rather intense by nature and that can be a bit overwhelming for others, especially those who are somewhat shy themselves. It is important not to be so focused on one’s own concerns that one neglects the equally valid concerns of the other party in a given interaction, as difficult as it may be to know and show recognition of those concerns.
In the end, there is no substitute for experience when it comes to getting to know others well. However much one may know about someone from their writings or their online conversations, if you want to get to know them well you have to sit down face to face with them and hear their tone of voice and see their body language and facial expressions, and then you can appreciate who they are as a person. Over time you will see their quirks and riddles and contradictions and also gain an understanding of how their lives have been shaped by their personality and formative experiences. I tend to look at other people rather sympathetically, seeking to understand, aware that I am both a person from whom a great deal can be understood rather easily, but also a person of deep caverns and layers as well that are less openly obvious. It is my hope that I get the time and opportunity to better understand the most fascinating people around me, and for them to understand me better as well.