The curse of the keep-in-toucher

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Recently, I touched base with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in ages (2 years almost) and sometime through the conversation, she mentioned she wasn’t good at keeping in touch at all and so was glad that I reached out. And so you’d think that she’d reach out the next time we lose touch right? No, wrong. This is the exact thing she’d said two years ago when I’d reached out to her after a gap of 4 years. Now, you’d think that I’d be pretty stupid to think she’d ever reach out on her own right? No, wrong again! This was a friend who kept in constant touch back in college when we were physically around each other, so much so that I don’t ever remember initiating a single conversation.

This is not a story in isolation. It happens to my all the time. I just thought people grow up, get very busy in their own lives, hardly find time to keep in touch and so, I am doing a great thing by giving them an opportunity to reconnect with old friends except when recently, an old friend who I’d (obviously) reached out to after years, needed no updating on my life as he’d already stayed upto date about it through my Facebook feed. This is when I started reconsidering my argument about people not having the time and realised that the real problem was that I am a big “keep-in-toucher” unlike most of my friends.

When I reach out to friends and they say they’re glad I got in touch, I assume that they’re going to take the cue and reach out on their own the next time. But they don’t. Also, they don’t stop saying how glad they are that you reached out since they are terrible at keeping in touch because they’d much rather stalk you and ask you to mark yourself safe from a terrorist attack on the internet than pick up the phone and text you. It’s a vicious circle – a curse on every keep-in-toucher.

It’s strange, but not unexpected that nature of relationships change over time and place. I always found the phrase “Keep in touch” very funny, especially when really close friends wrote that in slam books because you’re so young and unmarred by life that you think nothing could ever change the fervour of your friendships. But I can tell you, even if I exchanged a 100 messages one day with a long-lost friend (that’s the only way to speak with friends strewn all over the world) and felt like nothing had changed between us, I could bet that the next day won’t be the same as a following day in the previous era when we were best friends. This certainty of loss of ferocity over time which completely replaces the certainty of the ferocity, is hard to deal with as adults.

So, if you ever get a text from me, it’s because I am a compulsive keep-in-toucher, not because I am trying to kill time on my commute  (there’s no signal on the tube, mind you).  And don’t apologise for not being good at keeping in touch because I know you better than that!

 

Friendships to keep (and let go of)

1stblock“People now in their 20s have a lot of self-advertising talent, but are they, I wonder, close to the point where a bad breakup, say, or a death in the family, isn’t a moment of opportunity for the protective and dignifying balms of old friendship, but simply a quiet day on social media?”

The internet has radically redefined the way we make and keep friends. Some of us are embracing this transition with grace while most of us born in the pre-internet era feel like trapeze monkeys finding it hard to replace emotions with emoticons because they don’t feel “real” enough. I read this beautiful article about friendship and I wondered why as we grow older, friendships seem far more circumstantial and hardly unconditional than they used to be when we were kids.

Every time I am changing diapers, my daughter chooses that precise moment to pee. It always makes me wonder why she can’t hold it for just a few seconds longer, until I’ve put a diaper on, only to realise that babies don’t really know how to hold things back. Just like how they can’t contain a smile when someone smiles at them. We learn restraint as we grow up. We start holding back our pee at first, and then our smiles. We just become so good at holding everything back that we even lose the ability to stretch our arms wide open and embrace new people in our lives.

When we were little kids, making a new friend was probably the best thing that could happen to us because it meant constancy – someone to play with everyday, someone to walk back home from school with, someone to share secrets with, someone who’d always be your partner in crime and someone you could take for granted (even when you didn’t know what granted actually meant). Our basic instincts as we know is always to trust and not hold back, but along the way somewhere, we start experiencing things we’ve never felt before such as separation anxiety, heart break, betrayal, etc. and in defence to all this, we start learning to hold back and somehow holding back feels much better than being hurt.

Through early adulthood, we practise holding back so much that by the time we are fully grown adults, we have lost the ability to give in and so its harder to make friends. We have so much more going on in our lives as we grow older that we neither have the time nor the energy to fully commit to nurturing unconditional friendships. The only ones we can really sustain are the pretend ones we keep on social media that involves public display of artificially and excessively sweetened affection.

Recently, a childhood friend visited me all the way from Canada just to say hello and see my baby. She needn’t have taken the trouble. At least not any more trouble than my friends in the city took. But I’m glad she did take the trouble because it felt wonderful. It felt like nothing had ever changed. It felt like time hadn’t moved. It felt like 1996 once again. We’ve hardly exchanged hearts or likes on Facebook and may be that’s why our friendship still feels the same? Some of my best kept friendships till date are the ones I wasn’t afraid of making and the ones I haven’t been afraid of letting go because they somehow always have a way of finding me even if I didn’t have droplets of my existence all over the internet.

 

 

The changing landscape of friendships

Part of the reason why I took to blogging regularly is my diminishing social eco-system (including family, colleagues, bus friends, walking friends, playmates, etc) when I moved out of the city that I’d lived all my life in. Of course, it was compensated to an extent by my new found routine in Barcelona that included wonderful flatmates and teammates. But life away from “home” gives you enough reasons to value companionship more than you ever did. So it boggles me to see that the order of things have changed today – even with friends who were once a part of your daily ecosystem, you need to text before you call and you need to call before you visit. All this just because they are no longer a part of your physical ecosystem anymore.

Being in the same time zone and unlimited voice calls makes it tempting to stay in touch with friends here, more regularly than they’d want me to. I use the time I walk back home to call my friends. But, apparently calling people is so 20th century according to one of my friends. To put things into context, this friend and I are FaceTime buddies and so, he’s used to seeing my pretty face while we speak and so it’s perfectly understandable that he’d get disoriented if he didn’t see me while we spoke. Also, I might have crossed the line earlier today when I made a 60 second call to share a random passing thought.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this scene from the movie “America America”, where Hema (who plays Bhoomika) visits her neighbour’s house unannounced and the neighbour enlightens her about the order of business in the US – you call first before landing up at someone’s doorstep. In our generation, the order of things stands at texting before calling. Unannounced calls are reserved only for deaths and fires that have ghastly consequences unlike glaring visions of vomit all over town on game day. If you thought calling someone unannounced is bad enough, even staying in touch can strain friendships in our generation.

Another friend explained a few days ago that she’d had a fall out with her best friend of several years simply because despite having moved apart and living very different lives in different cities, this best friend expected my friend to stay in touch regularly without having anything concrete to discuss in every call. This made me wonder if we are commitment phobic not just with romantic relationships but all kinds of relationships because it makes us needy, vulnerable and susceptible to getting hurt. Why else would we want out of good friendships that offer great emotional support?

The cost of companionship

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It all started when I moved to here to Barcelona, to a different city, where I had to make friends and family from scratch. Some people are inherently good at this, while most of us are not so gifted. Well, there;s nothing wrong with suffering from the inability to make friends because if all of us were good at just about everything in life, then there wouldn’t be trade, growth in economies, globalisation (my globe professor Pankaj Ghemawat may not agree very much with me here) and what not. So, it’s okay. For us, the cost of companionship is crazy high. This is a problem that needs to be solved since making and retaining friends and family is a desirable state to be in.

Last night, I had plans to meet some people (a group of 20-25 people, some close, most not) for dinner at a Thai restaurant. Normally, I’d have no second thoughts about dinner at a Thai restaurant but I wasn’t feeling too well and hence, preferred to eat something more soothing like Japanese. So, I asked my flatmate if he wants to join me for dinner since he didn’t have any dinner plans. He said he’d been going out too much lately and was planning to cut down on spending (He’d have to spend around 20 Euros for the Japanese dinner). I offered to pay for him but he wasn’t too happy about that. I quickly realised that the price of him accompanying me for dinner was far greater than 20 euros if I’d to persistently convince him to join me since for all you know the opportunity cost of joining me for a Japanese meal was probably pretty high for him. Having found no excuse to skip my prior commitment, I set sail to the Thai dinner.

Now, if there was someway to just find someone to go out for this Japanese meal with at almost zero cost, it would have been wonderful. Mind you, texting people randomly on Whatsapp groups asking if someone’s up for dinner has a very high cost given the low probability of double coincidence of wants. So, I propose an idea for a social discovery app, that I’d like to call “InstaFriend”, which would allow you to look for people around you who’d be willing to join you to do different activities at a moment’s notice and you can propose restaurants, bars, etc located nearby to meet. You’d have the possibility to learn about their interests from their profile before you initiate engagement. Any enthusiastic entrepreneur is welcome to steal this idea and then pay me credit through equity. You’re welcome.

Until this solution is implemented, I guess I’m on my own. The Japenese cravings couldn’t wait, so I went to this really nice restaurant for lunch this afternoon and thulped a Japanese Bento, all by myself. And guess what, it felt great to not have to talk while eating. I am not propagating navigating one’s entire life alonely, but if companionship costs too much, it may not be worth it. It’s perfectly alright if you can’t afford company sometimes. There’s no need to beat yourselves up about this. It happens to everyone some time or the other. It’s better we start getting used to it unless of course, someone does manage to steal my idea and implement it.

How many megapixels are you?

I had waited almost a year after watching Conor Neil’s fantastic TED Talk about the business of finishing before I met him earlier today. In the context of having had a super intense discussion for a course project with my team (among my closest people in school) the previous night, I concocted a theory out loud about physical v/s mental distance in social relationships. Here’s a quick background story – The project is for the operations strategy course and it’s about the automotive industry. If there’s anyone in the world who remotely knows me, I can talk about it in my sleep but unfortunately, I had been struggling to accurately convey my enthusiasm for the project.

So, here’s the theory I cooked up – there are times when we feel incredibly lonely and miserable despite being surrounded by literally hundreds of friends, acquaintances, people, etc. everyday. It happens to all of us (Yes, I said it, ALL of us). And it’s okay. Sometimes there’s an enormous mental distance between you and a friend despite being in such close physical proximity that diminishes and gets compensated by a physical distance sooner or later (Surely, after a year!), when you’ll be a lot closer mentally. Imagine receiving a text from this friend out of the blue three years down the line and how reminiscing times spent at school can bring an instant smile on your face. It’s the physical distance at play, I’m telling you! Essentially, the vector sum of physical and mental distances in any relationship is always equal to zero (Ok, conceptually, but of course it might be debatable when quantified!). Though, there’s only one thing that can distort this equation – Alcohol, the universal social lubricant.

Otherwise, everything becomes so much more beautiful and larger than life when at a distance and zoomed out. Imagine zooming deep into a perfectly drawn straight line, further and further. Beyond a point, you can see the line as just a collection of pixels lined up one behind the other and it’s just not perfectly straight anymore. We start nitpicking at how it’s not perfectly straight anymore just like how we make judgements about people simply because they want to be a turtle one day and not, another day (Ok, this is an inside joke)/ So, the closer you get to people, the more you expose your pixels. If you’re lucky, they might start accepting and appreciating the irregularity of your pixels but that’s rare. But more often than not, we like to stand, watch, judge and move on.

So, unless you are super high resolution (deep personality types), people will stumble onto your pixels sooner than later and won’t find them too pretty. So you either spend enough time with people physically getting them to fall in love with the irregularity of your pixels or be the perfect straight line at a distance so you always look great! And aptly so, Prof.Neil thought I looked very happy.

Gossip Distribution Model

I have been brewing a post about this in my head for quite sometime but I hadn’t had much success until yesterday when I received a phone call from a friend who seemed to express displeasure over a rumour she’d heard about a rumour that I was believed to have been spreading. Given our ‘social distance’, whether I was right or not, I didn’t stand a chance in convincing her over her primary sources of information. Now, what was interesting about the whole incident was to learn about who her primary sources were. They were the popular hubs of information flow. This confirmed my earlier hypothesis that gossip follows a power law distribution – very few people hold all the enormous hoards of information while the large majority of people have almost negligible information. Gossip primarily follows a hub and spoke model (eg. when someone shares inappropriate pictures of others on a whatsapp group) and in some rare cases especially in private circles (best friends, etc.), it’s point to point.

For someone with a small circle of mutually exclusive friends, I have never really been conscious of flow of information and its repercussions since I have always lived in an eco-system of strong trust. However, when you move to a new social circle, a natural conversation catalyst is discussing common event, connections, etc. Given that in any group of individuals, the levels of integrity is varying, gossip becomes inevitable. Whether you wish to contribute or not, in one out of eleven cases, you might have added some value to the conversation as a result of a cascading effect caused by other members of the group. This doesn’t qualify you to become the hub. It is when you start believing that it is your duty to transfer this piece of information to the rest of the world. It is when the whole world can count on every flight of information to pass through you that you really become the hub i.e when you actively collect and transmit information that does not belong to you.

Until a trip last month, I was really almost at the tail end of this power law distribution. I was moved up several notches through tons of flights (information) that landed in my territory that I had no idea what to do with since all the information that I had gathered over this trip was ‘old news’ for most people. I was overwhelmed by how much I had aggregated and hence decided to disperse it in a direction that would be least harmful – my better half. More importantly, I remembered a smart senior friend of mine telling me that she hates to indulge in ‘gossip sessions’ with her countrymen (women) since she sees this act as a potential threat to her professional image since the people involved in these sessions are her future colleagues/ peers in the corporate world. I thought this was very valuable insight given that I am in a course where I have voluntarily signed up for continuous assessment (read judgement).

I am going to sign off with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt –

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Credits – My team who helped me discover this concept about how information flows within our common social circle.

Why it’s harder to make friends as you grow older

I just found the answer to one of the most pressing questions of my life reading through my ‘Decision Analysis’ notes. We tend to miscalculate the long-term impact of decisions that will have an influence many years from now. To rationalise why it is harder to make friendships as we grow older, we do not have ample opportunity to grow together in the friendship like we did in childhood (for a billion reasons that I couldn’t bother stating at the moment, maybe for another post) which means that it is a gamble, implying a higher discount rate needs to be applied in evaluating present worth of the relationship. Also, since as humans we have unreasonable expectations, we expect to derive the same level of satisfaction from new friendships as we do from the old ones, we can imagine the NPV to be the same. Given the shorter time period we have with new friends (up to the end of our lives), there is only one way this can be made possible – We simply have to invest much more effort (annual cash inflows) in these new relationships now than we ever did before as we have lesser time with people we meet beyond our school/ university years and we’re expecting similar quality.