Hiding behind the screen?

If you are heavy into cyber-relating, beware. Cyber-relationships are cloaked; only face-to-face relationships are real

Women talking behind the computer screen

As a young man I had sworn that when I got older, I’d never say, "We didn’t do it that way when I was a kid!— However, I’m finding that I can’t avoid saying it—When I look, I can’t believe my eyes, and I find myself mentioning "the rules" of the past. I can really set myself off over people whose only mode of relating is via computer technology.

Sure. I use social media [twitter, facebook, linkedIn] mostly for business, and for touching base with friends. I use e-mail for connecting, planning and counselling. If I pay attention, I notice that these tools stand between me and the recipient—if I forget, I miss that the recipient is a flesh and blood person. I often talk with clients about their use of social network to find that many are hiding behind technology—they are cyber-relating, and are failing at learning to relate face-to-face.

Just recently, I read about Tone Check. It’s a plug-in for your e-mail program that checks what you write and makes sure you’re being polite. When I read about it, I thought, "You have got to be kidding me!" Imagine trusting a programmer to determine, and correct, your emotional status! What happened to learning to monitor written and spoken language through direct feedback?

Tools like Facebook are just that—tools. They are great for scheduling, planning, reminding, remembering. Used inelegantly, they get in the way of anything "real." Unlike the ebb and flow of face-to-face dialogue, cyber-dialogue has a weird excitement to it. There’s the momentary, "I must be important, I have a 1000 Facebook friends, and my inbox is full."

If you notice, there is a crash after the high. You have to deal with the messages—the e-mails. You make yourself crazy trying to keep on top of it all. You might choose to argue otherwise, but face-to-face relationships are real, whereas cyber-relationships are cloaked.

One of my clients recently decided to end a friendship/romance. We talked about her being really clear about the language she should use—I advised that she use 'I' language, assign no blame and be honest. Her friend lives 600km away, so I asked her how she was going to deliver her message. She emphatically stated that she was going to use the phone. Later that day, she sent me the text of a very well-written e-mail! She told me she was "afraid of his response."

Now, you could argue that a well-crafted e-mail or letter is better for clear communication. Actually, it’s simply safer. You don’t have to deal with the face-to-face repercussions of your actions. You don’t have to figure out, on the fly, what to say next. If the person e-mails back, you can spend days crafting a reply. And you learn nothing.

Real relating is not easy. Never was, never will be. Putting a screen between you and another person is fine for exchanging information. "The baby is teething!" really doesn’t require a face-to-face. "I’m having problems understanding our relationship, and I want to explore that with you, [or end it]" demands personal contact. Rather than being real, people are disappearing behind their screens. One of my twitter friends, a local woman whom I’ve never met, suddenly started tweeting her location—right now, she’s getting coffee! Downtown!

I have two reactions: 1. I do not care where she is. 2. If  she wants a flash mob of friends to show up, why not pick up the phone and ask directly, or, heavens, bring coffee to a friend?

I picture her, sitting alone at a café table, slugging back a cappuccino, while frantically typing messages screaming for attention. Seems a bit sad, eh?

Technology was supposed to make our lives easier, to free us up to have real lives. Now, five decades in, we are working longer, stress-filled hours. And when we are done, we grab our smart phone, our tablet, or our Game Boy, and relax by zoning out from reality. In the past, we’d have done something with friends, or hung out with family. Many seem to avoid this at all costs.

A couple describes its relationship. She wants to hold hands, walk in the park, have eye-to-eye dialogue. He thinks she’s too demanding. He hands her the other remote control for his gaming console. There they sit, hour after hour, side by side, staring at a TV screen. This passes, in 2011, for relating.

I’m not a Luddite [one who hates technology]. My wife and I have three computers, a tablet, and two smart phones. I’m using two screens while writing this—e-mail’s open on the other. When I’m not counselling, I use the computer to write books and to talk to clients by e-mail. And I regularly check social networking sites. I can get lost here, and have.

I know, however, that in order to be 'awake', I have to be real. That means endlessly learning about myself, and that is best done in dialogue. Sharing my life and work with others requires that I tear my face from the screen, get up and make direct contact. Direct contact requires an amazing depth of presence and attention.

I’m cyber-friends with another author, and all of our contact has been through facebook and her blog, where I leave my comments. Last week, she had an ‘event’ in her life, and facebook-ed me, "Could we talk by phone?"

This is what reaching out for real contact looks like, and we’re both aware that e-mail or facebook is no substitute. The phone is not quite face-to-face, [unless we Skype!] but much more intimate—the back and forth happens in real time. No hiding behind carefully pre-written phrases, no practising and revising before delivering them, no passing our words through "Tone Check."

Real, is, well… real.

Real relating is awkward, messy and direct. Cyber-communication is cold, and designed for the exchange of information, not emotion or depth. Because there is no direct feedback, people routinely write garbage they’d never say. Recently a blogger suggested that most of this would stop if writers asked themselves, "Would I say this out, aloud to my grandmother?"

We gain clarity through feedback, and the best feedback is face-to-face.

The only awareness that matters is self-awareness. That’s why we are here. So, pay attention! Wake up! Ask yourself about your use of cyber-contact. Are you using it as a convenience—a tool to organise your face-to-face world? Or are you using it to avoid issues, people, and contact? Are you using it to think you are being a good parent or son or lover or friend—"See how much contact I’m making?"—when in truth you’re hiding behind it?

Authenticity comes with direct contact. For direct contact, [including the phone/Skype—but only to compensate for long distance relationships…] you must be there!

Take a look at the ways you hide, and choose to show up, because the real world beats cyber-reality, every time.

» More tips from Wayne Allen for relating in real life.

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