Social Media: Does It Stretch Relationships Too Thin?

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“I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean; like butter that has been scraped over too much bread,” says Bilbo Baggins in the classic Lord of the Rings.

I feel like that sometimes when scrolling through my Facebook feed. Or my Twitter feed. Or my Instagram feed. Or my Pinterest boards. Or…

Give me a moment as I pause from typing this; I have an inbox full of text messages which I forgot to reply to earlier. Each reply will start a whole conversation, and I don’t have the energy to juggle 6 of them. How will I ever get my homework done? “Haha, yeah,” I will respond distractedly, putting my phone down only to have it buzz immediately. A conversation can’t politely be let go until someone says goodbye, so my vague response necessitates another question to keep it going. “Um…what have you been up to today?” I might have already answered this question 4 times in various ways, but I can’t be rude.

Ongoing conversations are one of the most stressful things about social media. As a recent article pointed out, “The conversation is never over.” Instead of getting coffee once in a while to catch up on the last week or month, you’re constantly bombarded with live updates of every insignificant activity.

“What are you up to?”

“Just doing some homework. You?”

“Not much. Being lazy.”

“Haha yeah, I feel ya.”

“Yeah.”

“So…what are you up to now?”

“Getting some food, you?”

“Taking a break from homework to walk the dog.”

“Sounds exciting.”

And truthfully, neither party gains much, if any, satisfaction from this exchange. If you continually have conversations like this every day, you begin to feel smothered. You can’t keep up with all the people who are texting you, you can’t come up with conversational replies, and you just feel drained. Especially if you like to have your introverted moments, you can never fully recharge, because your quiet time is peppered with demands on your attention.

And there’s another way in which social media affects our relationships: it infringes upon our ability to live in the present. As harsh as it sounds, there are some relationships in our lives which are probably meant to be seasonal — you make a difference in each other’s lives and then move on to meet new people. You have the memories, and you’re a better person for having met them, but they don’t follow you everywhere.

A couple of years ago, a middle-aged friend of mine was telling me about the ending of his long-distance engagement after he met another girl (who ultimately became his wife). “It was terrible timing because I was up there for my fiancee’s graduation,” he explained. “But if I was going to do it in person, it had to be then. She threw the ring at me and got out of the car, and I drove away.”

“Did she get over it? What happened to her?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I never saw her or talked to her again after that day.”

I was shocked by this — but honestly, think about what a clean break it was. No hanging around pretending to be friends when everyone knows that doesn’t work. No drawn-out explanations, no backsliding, no misery and tears over his wedding photos on Facebook — which we put ourselves through because it’s “petty” to delete an ex from Facebook and proves that you’re not “mature” enough to deal with being friends.

Even apart from the breakup situation, sometimes relationships end up being a far bigger part of your life than normal social skills require, or are comfortable with.

“When are we going to hang out?”

I would never hang out with you if you hadn’t added me on Facebook after I spilled my ice cream cone in your lap at a McDonald’s 400 miles away from my city. 

Now that we have social media, however, with a quick exchange of phone numbers and usernames, we create the expectation that we must remain connected to every single person we meet…for the rest of our lives. But because we will come into contact with thousands of people throughout our lifetimes, does it slow us down to have the expectations of an actual relationship attached to every one?

I’ll be the first to say how thankful I am to be able to FaceTime with people I’ve connected with all over the country/world; I miss them. And if they weren’t constantly a phone call away, goodbyes would be so much more painful. Don’t hear this as a dismissal of those important relationships. I’m glad that the technology is available to continue them, and I don’t want to let them go.

But sometimes it’s emotionally exhausting.

And sometimes, we live so much in a virtual world that we are too drained to invest in the people who are right in front of us — if we even notice them. If we are to have any sort of balance in our social lives, we have to draw some sort of boundaries to protect us from relational burnout.

Back when I worked in retail, I prided myself on my customer service skills. I would never let a caller be on hold for more than a couple minutes, or if their request took a while, I would pick the phone back up a couple of times to reassure them that I was working on it. But on the occasion that the store itself was actually busy, it would get overwhelming to juggle customers and callers. My manager had to remind me, “The customers in the store deserve your undivided attention. Tell the phone customers you’ll call them back later.”

I would give the same advice to you. Face-to-face interaction deserves priority. That doesn’t mean you should ignore or forget about everyone else, but live in the present, and value the relationships that you have there.

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Published in: on October 20, 2013 at 8:46 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent post, Lauren! And well said. (I especially love the LOTR quote).

    I use social media to keep up with old friends, most of whom I’ll never see in person again. That’s OK, but it’s important to remember the friends we do see. Those relationships are primary. There are some “over the pond” relationships that are very important to me and this is the only way we can keep contact other than two or three times a year we are able to meet face to face.

    However, it is important to keep the balance. Part of the struggle comes when we never actually turn facebook or social media off. Perhaps we should remove the app from our phones! To stretch a metaphor out too thin: perhaps the app should be thrown in the fires of Orodruin! 8^)

    I always enjoy your posts.

    Blessings and peace!

  2. I often hate the fact that people think they have immediate access to me. They don’t. I’ve always said that you don’t have to answer a phone just because it’s ringing. I feel the same way about responding to texts or voice mails or facebook.

    As for facebook specifically, I both love and hate it at the same time. It’s convenient, has enabled me to get to know people that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken the time to know, and has fostered some of my very best friendships. BUT it’s super annoying when people I don’t know well want to chat. And yes, when those non-conversations won’t end, I want to scream.

    Some of my favorites:
    The random guy from high school who was only an acquaintance back then and now wants to pop in to messaging a few times a week and yak it up about painting his master bedroom or whatever – which, frankly, feels borderline inappropriate…

    Or the people in my husband’s family who pop in to say hello – even though we’ve never met – “Yes, hello Mark’s Uncle Mike. What’s up with you? Not much here. Just hangin’ with the kids and avoiding the housework…” Uh, no thanks.

    Oh and my personal favorite – the random message relay. “Hey, will you have Mark call me? My number is…” Yes, long lost cousin-in-law. I will get right on that. Because he can’t check his OWN facebook messages, thank you for using mine.

    On the other side of the coin, my sister and our mutual friend and I have a running chat on facebook – like 24/7, we’re constantly reporting our lives. It’s fun. We love it. BUT we learned pretty early on that we needed a system of checking out of the chat. So we developed, organically, a check out system where I’m “ONE” my sister is “TWO” and our friend is “THREE” and when we leave the conversation, we say something like, “Gotta go. ONE” And we’re out. Nice and clean. But we can do that because we know each other so well, we’re okay being direct. With acquaintances it’s much harder to do without insulting anyone.


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