Read part one of Alone in a Crowd here.
“Happy birthday! Love, your favorite and only sister.” The closest most of us probably come to any handwritten confidence these days is signing a birthday card. Despite all the blank space inside enveloping a pithy sentiment, I don’t know many people who actually fill it up. Outside of Hallmark, parents don’t describe line by line how baby Tony tried to walk for the first time and biffed it on the coffee table. The photos are on Facebook. Friends don’t rehash last week’s party through long wine-stained scrawls. The rose got drank, and it was live tweeted.
Alone in a Crowd first looked at the piling on of social media and how that rapid but detached pace can contribute to loneliness. The responsibility falls heavier on us to reach below the harping statuses and Tweets to sustain meaningful connections with people. Malcolm Jones, a writer at Newsweek, observed, “The problem is not that there is not enough information about what we think or how we live. The problem is sifting through that sea of data. The most common complaint of our time is that we are overwhelmed by information, unmediated and unstoppable.”
For better or for worse, digitization will only become further integrated into our day-to-day life, so how can we embrace both the convenience and keep a grasp on mindfulness? How do we slow down? One reader, Naomi, tried something most of us probably haven’t done since grade school: pen pals. Jones also writes in Newsweek that “…if you do [write letters] enough, you begin to put your essential self on paper whether you mean to or not. No other form of communication yet invented seems to encourage or support that revelatory intimacy.” Below, Naomi describes why she decided to try pen palling and what she’s experienced as a 20-something exchanging letters around the globe.
What prompted you to do pen pals?
I wanted a closer connection with people, something that is more intimate than the causal email or text. With those, we expect fast results and blunder on through a conversation without really pausing to consider what we’re saying or how it was said. Letter writing is more permanent, and you have to be thoughtful in what you say, especially if you don’t want to keep using paper rewriting something
How did you start?
I went to a pen pal website (and pretty much followed the directions. I was worried that there wouldn’t be any pen palling for someone in my age bracket (20-30), but luckily, there are pen pals for every age.
Why did you choose the places you did? (The UK, China, Europe, and Australia.)
I started pen palling for two reasons: to make friends and to learn about other places. If I just chose countries that are similar to America, then I wouldn’t be really learning much. But on the other hand, you never know when something familiar will be vastly different, so I picked as many countries as I could to receive a good mix.
What kind of people have you met?
I have met so many similar people to myself that it’s ridiculous! I guess that’s what makes letter writing so easy for me. Everyone is very friendly and approachable, and really it makes sense. With a letter, you don’t get a fast answer, so each sentence has to be your best shot, your best foot forward. And as humans, we crave to be liked, so a positive, intriguing letter is the general result.
What do you find that makes this more interesting than other kinds of connection?
I love the slowness of it. I’ve become more interested in “drawing out” a conversation, and by that I mean not having immediate answers or a quick satisfaction of curiosity. It makes sense because in the old fashioned world of friendship making, we get to know people over a length of time, even years. I only get snippets of information from my pen pals and don’t get to always ask the questions I want or share certain information. Of course, I write too much because I’m excited and have so much to say. I often won’t receive a reply for weeks or even a month, but I like that because it means the other person is sitting on what I’ve said and taking time to craft an answer. Or they’re just so busy with their lives, ha!
Do you use social media?
Do you like it? If not, why do you keep it?
I kinda like it, and I kinda don’t. For me, an extreme introvert, having a text or chat board conversation drains me just as much as having one with a person physically in my space. When I come home from work, I’m often too tired to hang out in the flesh, so it’s nice to be able to go on Facebook or YouTube (yes, I will post comments on YouTube! So last year, I know, haha) or Twitter to have a quick conversation. I love long, thoughtful conversations, but there is a place for quick ones as well, whether they are just asking about someone’s day, discussing a book, or commenting on a tweet.
What do you hope to get out of social media?
I hope to learn about events and other people’s emotional states. With just an emoticon, a person can indicate what kind of day they’re having or how they’re doing at the moment. This helps me with how I should react, such as adding my own emoticon or inquiring further into how he or she is doing. It’s also nice to (sometimes, mind you) learn about a news event from someone’s feed and then go look it up to get the details. It makes it easier than combing through [news websites].
What are you looking for when you want to connect with people?
I am foremost looking for people who can really connect with me. It’s taken me years to understand that connect and relate aren’t exactly the same thing. Connecting, to me, means that you feel a kind of full feeling after interacting with someone, as well as contentment and joy. This is the type of person I don’t have to talk to or see for weeks but when I speak to him or her it is a great experience. I’m not left feeling lonely or confused about why I keep this person in my life. Relating is having someone understand or come close to understanding what you’re going through, which is great if you’ve had experiences much different from others.
My slow, contemplative way of maneuvering the world is not appreciated by the vast majority of folks out there.
I used to look around for people who could relate to me and came up empty each time. We didn’t have a connection and certainly not one past relating. These people can also be known as acquaintances or distant friends. If you think about it, it makes sense because humans need to relate to each other in a variety of situations. It’s how we foster closeness and bonding. However, it takes time and investment to go from relating to connecting. For me, lots of people fall into the relate or acquaintance category instead of the connection category. I do have high standards, haha, and try to tweak them when appropriate. Realistically, I’m not going to have a bosom friend connection with everyone I meet or know, but I do need to know that my venture in someone will pay off in the future, so I tend to weed out fair weather friends with abandon.
How do you find that lacking in this culture?
Our culture is very fast-paced. We expect things to appear immediately, and this includes friendships and partnerships. My slow, contemplative way of maneuvering the world is not appreciated by the vast majority of folks out there. I’ve seen this again and again in places that I’ve worked or gone to school. I operate on the idea that it takes time to do anything really, especially when it comes to learning and enjoying a friendship. I’ve known people who think just because you talked at lunch means that you are suddenly friends–buddies by association. It’s a high school mentality, and one I can’t accept.
I’m not afraid to notice and do something about these things is why I don’t quite fit into our main culture…
I think our culture is too afraid to really analyze friendships because people would realize that a lot of them aren’t based on much but association. Someone knows so-and-so and so you meet, someone works in the office cubicle next to you, so you’re friends, etc. Nobody wants to hear or say, “I don’t really want to be friends with you because the only thing we have in common is a next door cubicle.” That’s not how humans work. That I’m not afraid to notice and do something about these things is why I don’t quite fit into our main culture, but that’s ok. Like I said earlier, I’m working on being more forgiving of this mindset and do value people who aren’t my bosom buddies.
What do you hope to get out of pen pals?
I hope to have the continued privilege of enjoying someone’s sole focus being on me. That’s very selfish, I know, but it feels good to have apt attention to something I wrote and have someone ask questions about what I think or do. In turn, I hope I can give that same experience to someone else because I get what it’s like to be looked over and feel lonely. My high school years in a nutshell, haha!
I hope to foster slow-growing connections that last for years.
Have pen pals provided something that you’ve found lacking in your personal community?
Yes. They are showing me more of what the world is like, especially that we’re not that different. Sometimes, I think about how people would react if we could pull away all the shit we hear on the news, all the anger and hate we give to each other. If they could see how someone in Asia thinks about the same things we do here in America, or in Europe or South America, then maybe we could all get along better. A pipe dream right there, I know.
What kind of relationships do you hope to foster through pen pals?
I hope to foster slow-growing connections that last for years. If you can win someone over with your words, then that means you have a lot going for you, even more so if it’s handwritten on paper. All we have is words on paper, and we learn about each other through them without any voices or body language. That kind of relationship is worth protecting and nurturing.
Do you think you’ll ever stop?
Nope. I want to pen pal for as long as I can because nothing makes me happier than receiving a letter through the mail, and I become super excited about what’s inside.