“I am me, now. It’s just when I text or email, I can’t always be me.”

I overheard part of a conversation recently waiting in line – a girl speaking on her cell phone:
“I am me, now. It’s just when I text, or email, I can’t always be me. But now, it’s me! I’m here, with you.”

I won’t belabor that with a full deconstruction, but it got me thinking about how technology is shaping the way we handle relationships. How does technology shape our relationships in positive ways, facilitating communication and bridging gaps? Also, how does it hinder our communication and complicate our relationships? I asked for input from friends about their experiences with new technology in their relationships and put together some thoughts that follow.

In person, we rely on the intricacies of language and non-verbal cues to create an infinitely complex puzzle of messages. These are used to build and shape our interpersonal journeys. Our relationships are built on the transfer of information from one to the other, but reducing these to binary data may become detrimental, as the nuance is lost. As new technology becomes our main conduit, we have to find new ways of achieving the same subtleties. We also are adjusting to the speed at which our relationships can shift given the frequency at which we’re now communicating.

With our intimate partners, we create unique codes of nose wrinkles, gestures, the fleeting touch of a finger to his earlobe. A hand on the knee under the table reminds her you’re most attuned to her even in the company of co-workers. The lilt in your voice as you leave for the train lets him know you’ll be daydreaming of him and your upcoming vacation.

With strangers, we have regionally, culturally determined salutations of handshakes, head-nods, and colloquialisms. In NY, there may be little subtlety in letting the tourist know to get out of the fast lane on the sidewalk. Coming from North Carolina, I use “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” as a habit of my childhood and to let people know they’ve been heard.

With our communications being reduced into digital data, the subtlety is easily lost: sarcasm is obscured in text messaging; the sweetness of the “I miss you” email is lost to the barrage; the independence in adventure and the passion upon return may be stymied by the e-leash; the lunch partner is betrayed by the din of ring tones and vibrations rattling the stemware.

This is not to deny the brilliance of hyper-accessibility. The fact that I can text one brother for an airport pick-up, call my mother to help with the flight re-booking, and surf the internet for flight schedules is a brilliant feat. I fully embrace the power of Wikipedia to end an argument or settle a bet, as does my stepfather, though he rarely needs it. A co-worker preserves her parenting partnership and enduring love with her husband by using Skype, chat and email while he is in Afghanistan.

Beyond accessibility, technology is improving the quality of communications, as was recalled by a friend in a long-distance relationship. While the phone served as his primary tool to keep in touch, they also used IM/chat during calls to say the harder stuff they struggled to say out loud. This gave them a safer way to express their emotions. The door was then open to delve deeper when they were both comfortable.

One of my distant cousins, who I keep up with on Facebook, has embraced technology to further his passion for genealogy, teaching me how we’re related and our connection to the candle-factory-turned-historical-museum on Nantucket! Like me, he’s cold to the twitterverse, but keen on sending his wife an email, though she’s sitting in the same room with him.

Several comments I received echoed my nostalgia for the days of the unconnected. It was humorous then to see some of those same people depending on Facebook for the solutions to everyday life: “Who’s got a kid-friendly chard recipe?”

“Hey, OC peeps – I need a pick-up at LAX.”

As the culture and means of sharing changes, our socialization is swiftly evolving. With so much personal information flooding our avatars – Facebook, twitter, flickr, etc. – what is left to share with the person who gains our deepest trust? One friend commented on the culture of over-sharing and the discomfort it raises. If we cannot save the intricacies of our personalities for special moments, relationships will be as informed by a twitter feed as by conversation face-to-face.

As I develop these ideas, I invite your insights, reactions, experiences. Please comment below.

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