As I made my way through a college with a healthy geographic diversity and summers spent on the West Coast and abroad, all the while accruing friends and acquaintances who claimed every part of the world as home, I realized that I was not good at keeping in touch. I can scroll through slews of Facebook friends (#humblebrag) I haven’t spoken to since the last time we were face-to-face months, now maybe years ago. This used to be very distressing to me. When would be that happy time when all the people I cared about lived in one place, where we would be neighbors and visit and drink coffee and pet each others’ dogs? That would be adulthood, right? Not so much.
But as I got older, I further realized that no one is good at keeping in touch. Gone are the days when people would write pages of epistolation, just for the sake of being friends. Even doing this once a year, only at Christmas, seems somehow gauche.
I think for the most part Facebook is to blame. People can reasonably expect to know things like where you’re living, what your job is, what your pets look like, where you go to grad school, by being friends on Facebook. But reading about someone you know on Facebook isn’t the same as keeping in touch. It’s a completely passive exercise. Someone posts something for an audience of everyone, aka no one in particular, and someone else reads it, alone, with no obligation to reciprocate or react, at all. The poster doesn’t know who sees their post, and the reader can read without the poster knowing they did so. It’s like someone standing on a table in the middle of a party with a blindfold on and earplugs in, proclaiming,
“I think my cat is cute.”
“I went to Seattle with my girlfriend.”
“Westworld is a great TV show.”
“I was disappointed in the new Star Wars movie.”
So how to turn this active? How to reach out to that person standing on the table, gently remove their earplugs and blindfold, and tell them that I, too, think their cat is really cute, and that I, too, was disappointed in the latest Star Wars sequel? How to keep in touch? And where does this leave someone like me, who is an ocean away from decent wifi and has no area code in their phone number?
I’m not going to say that I turned it all around and became great at keeping in touch. But here are some tips I’d like to put out there, especially for my generation of flakey millennials.
- Figure out who you actually want to keep in touch with. Keeping in touch does require some amount of effort, so be discerning, and be realistic. I keep a list on my wall above my desk, and put a check next to each person’s name when I write them a letter. It’s not creepy, it’s organizational!
- Know that they way you keep in touch with people will vary depending on the person. Some people I have random, fun text conversations with. A couple people write me physical letters. One friend likes to send me tacky postcards. One or two I exchange long, chatty emails a few times a year. One friend hates typing, so we Skype every few months. One friend and I exchange ranty-y, 10+-minute-long voice notes over WhatsApp at least once a week. Find what works for you and that person. Be creative.
- When you are the person who has more access to wifi, data networks, electricity, etc., take a page out of the Peace Corps handbook and be patient and flexible. I can tell you that with no electricity in my home, my phone is frequently out of battery, and when it does have battery, I’m not going to drain it with something like a video call. I can tell you that, with a 6-7 hour time difference with only the East Coast, live phone calls, video chats, and texting convos will be tricky to arrange. I can tell you that wifi in Lesotho is scarce, meager when it’s there at all, and never available in a private space. I can tell you that whereas data networks are improving all the time, even in Lesotho, know that while you’re cruising on 5G or 6G or whatever number-G, in my village the best you will ever get is 3G and every time the wind blows drops to something called “Edge” (1G? ½G? What does G even stand for, anyway?). And finally I can tell you that the powerhouse of a phone you are holding in your hand (or wear on your wrist or inside your sunglasses or however it works these days – Can you tell I’ve been gone two and a half years?) as you read this, whether iPhone or otherwise, can run technological circles around what I’m currently rocking. The most popular phone among PCVs in Lesotho (popular due to its low price tag) is the Samsung Smartkicka, lovingly nicknamed the “Shitkicker.” I can make phone calls! There’s a calculator! I can Google things! That is the end of the exciting features list. I’m not writing this to complain. I’m writing this because I know it’s hard to know what your expectations of your distantly-placed friend should be. My advice: low. The burden is on you to download the messenger app that works for them, or send them pics instead of videos. If you can’t meet your friend where they are vis-à-vis communication methods, you’re essentially saying they’re not worth the effort. In sum, I’m only going to say this once: WHATSAPP TRUMPS FB MESSENGER. EVERY TIME.
- Tell your friend what is happening in your life. I think many of us fail to keep in touch because we don’t know what to say. It’s like we’re appearing on a late-night talk show- we don’t want to show up unless we have a funny anecdote. But here’s the thing: if all you’re giving someone is what’s especially amusing or big-news important, they’re not going to have any context to put that in. If you tell your friend you got a promotion at work, they’ll be much more excited for you if they know you’ve been hoping for that promotion for months and you’re really sick of your cubicle-mate.
Let me also add that you should never refrain from telling a friend about your life because you think they’ll find it boring, even if they’re doing something like living in a developing country as a PCV. Hearing about everyday American life is exactly what I want to hear about, as someone living in a developing country as a PCV. Everything is so foreign all the time, often a jolt of home is just what I need. Plus, boring things are inherently interesting when they happen to your friends, because they’re happening to your friends.
- Share media. In order to avoid the “Here’s my life_____,”- “Cool, here’s my life _____,” rut, find something you and your friend can share. Read the same book, or listen to the same podcast. I’ve even watched a movie with someone, while Skyping (pre-Peace Corps, of course). Is your friend a desolate PCV with no internet access? Download some media and mail them a USB drive. While I was in training my very dedicated friend Ann would include a hand-written page of funny posts from Tumblr in every letter which we could then joke about later. Find a thing you both like, and then like that thing together.
- Try to visit. Like actually though. Relationships grow through shared experiences, and the more memorable those experiences, the closer friends you’ll be. Having friends in far-away places makes traveling more fun and more rewarding. My host-mother in Paris used to encourage me to “Profitez-bien!” which means “Take advantage!” Make the effort of keeping in touch worth it by making the most of your separation. And of course, at the end of the day, there’s nothing like a real hug from a real friend.
- Let go. Some of the people I tried to keep in touch with while in Lesotho did not reciprocate. If you tell someone clearly that you want to hear from them and how they can reach you, they have to take it from there. It’s tough when you get no response, but not every friend is meant to be forever. My litmus test was to ask, are you just treading water with this person, or is the act of keeping in touch feeding your friendship?
And now, some pictures from when my friend Elly visited last year!