a big beautiful mess

Things I Don’t Talk About

There are certain traps I’ve fallen into when I lived abroad before, certain cycles and topics of conversation that took hold and controlled the way I communicated with my friends and family back home. I’ve made a concerted effort this time around not to let that happen.

We all knew graduating from college would mean changes for our friendships. But, being the farthest away in geography, time, and culture of my group of friends puts me in a unique position. I get enough of being unique here, though, as (usually) the only American in Arkhangelsk. In order to keep the conversations as normal as possible, here is a brief enumeration of the things I don’t talk about with my friends:

What time is it there? The conversation about how late it is in Russia already, and how weird it is that we’re communicating across time and how awkward it is to find a time to talk is only interesting once. As soon as I got to Russia, I installed a panel of clocks across the top of my computer desktop, one for each time zone that contains someone I love, and I refer to them regularly when I start chatting with someone, to orient myself to what part of the day my friend is at, and how long I might expect them to be able to stick around. I don’t mind if they ask me what time it is, but I try to keep that line of questioning to a minimum.

How’s the weather? This is not an interesting conversation in person, and it’s not interesting online either. Unless the cold is having a dramatic impact on my mood or my life today, I don’t want to spend 20 minutes talking about it. Yes, -22°F is cold, and yes, there’s still snow on the ground in mid April, but, look, I didn’t expect it to be in the 70s and sunny in the Arcitc. It also gives me neither pleasure nor jealousy to hear about how unseasonably warm it is in Pennsylvania. I would rather hear about the heat with your new boyfriend ;)

нуфр ерфе ыщ екгу Woops, I left my keyboard in Russian! This happens a lot. Sometimes I’ll google a Russian article or look up a word in the online dictionary, and then switch back to facebook to chat with someone, and initially type some Cyrillic gibberish when was supposed to say “hahaha.” It’s amusing the first time, but after that it only looks like me showing off how multicultural I am. I try to pay attention when I’m chatting, and correct my keyboard before I hit enter.

I miss you. This is a tough one. Because, yes, a lot of my time is spent missing my friends. But if all we talk about it how much we miss each other, the friendship stagnates. I think this is going to be the biggest challenge for friendship as our generation gets older. We became close when we were physically close, living across the street from each other, taking classes and eating meals and going out together every single day. And now we’re all far apart, and I’m far from everyone.

Even if I had stayed in the States, though, my socialization efforts would be flung far and wide across the Internet. Instead of mass texts to my college friends about where we’ll meet for dinner, I’m having individual conversations in slow-motion across multiple platforms and multiple time zones and states. While several friends have stayed in or gone back to Northampton, I have friends now in New Orleans,  New York, and Copenhagen.

The way we’re keeping in touch and communicating is changing rapidly. All communication is long-distance these days, and long-distance communication is faster and closer and easier than it ever was before. Even when I’m home, I text with my friends in town multiple times a day, to check in, to clarify when we’re meeting up next, to share a funny story. We’re geographically close, but our communication happens in the ether. And here, in Russia, it’s not uncommon to find myself switching between different platforms to talk to different people at the same time. I’ll chat with Shanna and Wei on gchat while they’re at work, and Andrew and Kait on facebook between their classes. Mom and Esther on skype once a month or so, and Dad via email maybe once a week. It’s all so easy, so simple, so close — everyone is just a click away. But maintaining all those relationships to the extent that they existed when we were all together is simply impossible, and the big social challenge of our generation will be learning how to be friends with spaces in between.

4 Comments

  1. Shanna Shanna
    29 April 2012    

    Well, it is an interesting world now of instantaneous communication, but I think back when it was even harder to keep in touch with your friends, people still managed to maintain contact over the years, despite geographical distance. My mom is still friends with some of her college friends, and they had nothing but letters and maybe a sporadic phone call. I believe that truly good friends can be apart for years and then come back together like no time has passed at all. Anyway, I love you, and I miss you. And I want to know what the weather is like RIGHT NOW…just kidding!

    xoxoxoxoxo
    Shanna

    • 29 April 2012    

      I agree with everything you said. Maybe I didn’t express myself quite right. I mean that we’ve kind of been tricked into thinking that friendship is easy and close despite geographic distance nowadays, with new technologies; but the truth is we’re just as separated as our parents and grandparents were in some ways. And if we waste time with the little superficial things, we’ll never have time for the real, good conversations in the sporadic moments we get.

  2. 3 May 2012    

    Your post poignantly raises the issue of friendships and relationships as we try to stay in touch with each other. I was in Ukraine at a time when I knew one guy with email. Our house didn’t have a phone. Contact was completely through letters. Even across town a telegram might have at times been the best way to contact someone. When I came back to the US, I had to keep in touch with folks with letters. Today, I still have one friend from that time and we insist on writing letters back and forth, just for nostalgia’s sake. (I’ll text her once I’ve sent off the letter, for example.)

    We met almost 20 years ago. Our lives have changed a ton. All my friendships from that time have changed. Facebook doesn’t help express the contours of everyday life like daily contact does. While “contact” is easy, being in the rhythm of everyday life can’t be experienced “virtually.”

    • 6 May 2012    

      Yeah. I don’t think this problem I’m having is unique to our century. I think it’s part of growing up, learning how to say goodbye and still keep your friends from high school, from college… But I think that the ease of communication that facebook guiles us into believing in makes it feel like we should be able to be in the rhythm of everyone’s everyday life. But that’s not really possible, as you say, and that conflict, between what facebook wants us to believe and what we’re really capable of, causes tension.

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