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I logged into Facebook, as I do every morning, and my news feed informed me that, overnight, seven of my friends had become fans of "Pretending to Text in Awkward Situations."
Sure, at first it's funny — who among us hasn't reflexively reached for the iPhone the second the elevator doors close? — but I quickly found myself wishing for a Dislike button.
Why? Because the more we become engaged with the people we already know (or sort of know) on Facebook, the more scared it seems we're all becoming of the unknown. Any situation can be awkward if you perceive it that way, and if we keep up the way we're going, they all will be.
Shyness is on the rise, according to the research of Bernardo Carducci, a psychology professor and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. According to a 2008 study, shyness, especially around strangers, is up more than 11 percent from a generation ago. While Carducci doesn't believe that technology alone can make you shy, "it tends to intensify tendencies that you already have," he says. That is, if you're shy, your smartphone will only make you shyer: "The number one problem shy people say that they have is initiating and maintaining conversation. Technology just gives you another way to avoid that, so rather than engaging people, you can sit at the table and pretend to be on your cellphone."
With an increase in what he calls "structured electronic interactions" and a decrease in spontaneous social ones, we're also losing the ability to make conversation, according to Carducci, who has published The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk. Few would ever admit to needing such a pamphlet, but how many people do you know who could use one?
"Technology can hurt us and it can help us," Carducci says, noting that online dating and social networking can sometimes help shy people break through the anxiety of making initial contact. (And yes, if you were wondering, there is a dating site especially for shy people.) "The downside is that we can lose a tolerance for diversity," he explains. "You can choose to talk to people who agree exactly with you, and if they disagree with you, you simply delete them. We're losing that ability to be flexible."
We are so wrapped up in the palm-sized digital worlds we carry in our pockets and purses that too often we forget to participate in the real one — to our emotional, and sometimes physical, detriment. Remember the teenager who fell into an open manhole last summer, which she didn't see because she was busy texting?
Besides the risk of being swallowed by a sewer, e-socializing can present problems maintaining relationships you already have, thanks to the lack of visual and audio cues that tell you when someone is being serious or sarcastic. Feelings can get hurt digitally in ways unimaginable IRL.
"I think we're in the process of figuring out what the rules are," said one friend, who has been getting the cold shoulder from her BFF ever since she unwittingly transgressed on Twitter.
Be social while networking
This year, try some of these suggested rules of etiquette to gracefully integrate online social networking into real life. They're designed to do the same thing that Facebook and Twitter purport to do so well: foster and protect interpersonal relationships.
Avoid tweeting in public.
Don't pull out your cellphone at a dinner or a party. That just sends a glaring message to the people you're with that "IN THIS MOMENT I'M PAYING ATTENTION TO SOMETHING MORE INTERESTING/IMPORTANT THAN YOU." If you must live-blog your dinner or send that urgent sext, excuse yourself and do it in the bathroom.
Beware the chain reaction.
Ever seen a table full of people at a restaurant or a bar and noticed they're all staring at their respective cellphones? Just as a yawn is contagious, so is texting, almost unconsciously so.
Ask before you tweet.
The people you're posting about might not have the same comfort level as you do when it comes to broadcasting personal details online. When in doubt, ask permission.
Observe the rule of three.
A psychologist friend once recommended limiting the number of "virtual" interactions that occur between in-the-flesh interactions to three. Digital intimacy doesn't always translate to in-person closeness, so try to keep it balanced.
Don't post passive-aggressively.
If you have something to say to a friend, just say it; if it's important or if there are emotions involved, pick up your phone or say it in person.
Sometimes a tweet is just a tweet.
That is, don't take anything that happens on Facebook or Twitter personally.
Keep it real.
The computer has a nasty way of inviting biting, snarky, and downright mean commentary that would never occur between people face to face. Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person.
Get out of the house.
Don't forget to use digital social networking tools to actually be social and/or network. The coolest part about Twitter is its ability to introduce you to people you might've never otherwise met, via Tweetups and other real-life get-togethers like Ignite.
Flesh comes first.
Whenever there's an opportunity to engage with a real person instead of a digital one, take it. How many times have you gone to a coffee shop packed with dozens of people staring into their own laptops, probably Facebooking with people who aren't you? "You could drink coffee at home for a lot cheaper," Carducci says, "but you go to this public space because that's where people are. That says that people truly want to be social, they truly want to connect, but they don't want to do any of the work."
Or they're just shy and don't know where to start. "Lots and lots of people have this problem. They use this as a crutch," adds Carducci, who likens the rationale for "pretending to text in awkward situations" to college kids' reasons for drinking or doing drugs. "They don't drink because they're exhibiting freedom; they drink because they don't know what else to do. They drink because they don't know how to socialize, because it gives them something to talk about, because it helps them deal with anxiety and loneliness. If you know how to connect otherwise, you don't need to do that."
Resolution Guide: Get Real! 2010
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