Simple Living/Downshifting

The Death of Intimacy

Scene: Late Fall, 2007, Portland, Oregon. A crowded light-rail train at rush hour close to full with people returning home from work (myself included.)

It was just short of 6pm. To my right stood a man in a black suit and blue tie with a briefcase, his head shaved to hide his early-thirties-receding-hairline. He was talking to the wall, or so it appeared. A few years ago, before the advent of headset phones I might have done a double-take. But now I just shrugged. He had one of those short, sleek, black headsets with a blue light attached to his right ear and he was talking to someone with whom he shared a different opinion, judging by his annoyed tone. From behind, he honestly looked more like a robot and less like a human being.

I shook my head, turned, and noticed a younger couple sitting together by the exit door. They were definitely “together” in some form, judging by their close proximity, but they couldn’t have been further apart if they tried. She was playing some sort of video game on a miniature hand-held device and he was sending a text message on his cell. I turned away and watched the world go by in a blur.

As we entered a tunnel, I heard a beeping from the guy who was text-messaging his friend moments ago. He re-opened his phone and started reading his new message. Looked to me like his friend had responded. He frantically started typing away again. His girlfriend sat silently, plugged into her game.

We were all traveling companions today, going our own ways, but so far removed from the actual scene that it was amazing.

Reality Shift

As a member of the human race, I can only speak from a limited perspective here. But I think it’s safe to say that we are heading in a very perilous direction.Different than any previous “perilous direction” we have survived before. Make no mistake; we are a resilient species. We have survived through wars, disease, hunger and pain. Our inventions, medicine and ideas have propelled us consistently ahead into ever-increasing qualities of life as we reach forward into a better tomorrow.

You’ve heard this all before, of course. Certainly at Tomorrowland at Disney World.

Sure, our planet is in danger, and yes we are at the mercy of dangerous weapons and threats from other countries. But perhaps our sanity is in the greatest danger, and in danger from the very thing that has kept us going and improved our quality of life. I’m talking about hyper-communication as a result of increasing technologies.

And the element that is on the endangered species list is intimacy.

The Birth of Hyper-Communication

In the 1700’s and earlier, there were two basic ways to communicate. Talking and writing letters.

The late 1800’s saw the telephone emerge. No longer did we have to be at the same physical location to talk.

Then came the internet, and with it, e-mail in the early 1990’s (I know it was around earlier than that, but it wasn’t used on a wider scale until 1995 or so)

Since 1995 (only 12 years ago) we have witnessed the birth of the following new forms of communication:

Blackberries, PDAs, cell phones, pagers, instant messaging, chat rooms, online forums, text messaging, call-waiting (aka: call interrupting) newsgroups, blogs, internet media centers, social networking sites (Facebook, Myspace, Livejournal, Blogger, Friendster), video conferencing and interactive online games like World of Warcraft where we can become pixelated avatars of ourselves and chat with others like us before we kill their pixelated alter-ego.

With all these new ways to communicate it’s a wonder we aren’t tearing out our hair. All these forms of communication are so new, so overbearing and so powerful a force that we really don’t yet have a grasp on how to handle them properly as a society. We have no idea what effect this is all having on our minds (especially the minds of the youngest generation, who have never known anything differently.)

In some ways, I consider myself lucky that I was born in 1979. Too much later and I fear I would never have known what life was like before the hyper-communication era. I’d never be writing this article because I wouldn’t be aware – I’d be trapped in the same matrix that a lot of Generation Y folks are (and plenty of people my own age.)

How Hyper-Communication Destroys Intimacy

If I go out to dinner with a friend and we have a meal together, talk about life and share ideas, we had a quality experience. It’s something we can perhaps talk about at a later date (like how bad the service was, or how good the oysters were, etc.)

If I go out to dinner with a different friend who brings his cell phone, leaves it on, and proceeds to ANSWER the phone multiple times over dinner EVEN JUST to tell the other person they’ll talk to them later, it ruins any kind of natural conversational flow. He might as well be in two places at once. There isn’t as much of a shared experience to talk about afterwards, because it’s less likely that any kind of quality came out of the evening. Maybe there was a 15 minute burst where there was no interruption, but it still hurts.

I’ve seen hyper-communication hurt relationships too. The boyfriend of a friend of mine was sitting on myspace and chatting with another girl WHILE my friend (his girlfriend) was trying to talk to him and get him to do something with her. She became upset and jealous over him talking to this other girl on this social networking site and ignoring her. The two of them hadn’t seen each other in days and she was looking forward to a nice alone with him. What I don’t understand is why would he rather have spent his time entering digits into a screen by himself and having a “conversation” while his poor girlfriend, who had been working all week, stood over him, begging him for a just a few moments of intimacy? Something was very wrong.

This point is simple. We have so many channels of communication open to us at all times that the quality of our exchanges is suffering badly. In the above example, if he really wanted to talk to this girl, why didn’t he just call her up and get some ice cream with her or something? It would have been real, face to face interaction. Instead, he chose to ignore his hurt girlfriend and have a half-hearted exchange of information over myspace the whole time she was there.

As I write this, somebody is sending me an instant message. Ironic. We’ll see if the quality of my writing goes downhill from here.

What You Can Do About It

I’ve come up with some ideas about how to increase the quality of communication and eliminate the clutter. You don’t have to join the rest of the human race and destroy your own ability to be intimate. If enough of us get together and fight information and communication overload, maybe we can make a difference!

1. Kill the Cell Phone. That’s right; just turn the thing off. leave it at home and check your messages when you return. When you get together with friends, you should be there to SEE YOUR FRIENDS, not leave another channel of communication open for interruption. One of my friends has always told me that “cell phones are for your convenience” and he is right. You don’t have to answer every time someone calls. If you need to bring one because you know you will HAVE to make a call, then keep it off until you need to be reachable, or better yet, just say to the person who is planning on calling that you’ll be busy.

2. Check your e-mail only ONCE per day (twice if absolutely necessary.) This is possible no matter what you do. 2 times is probably more than enough. Send out a notice to your friends/co-workers if you are worried about people wondering “where you are.” Say something like, “In an effort to increase the quality of communication in my life, I will only be checking e-mail once per day.” You don’t need any more distraction than this. E-mail is a wonderful thing if it isn’t a substitute for real face-to-face interaction.

3. Facebook, Myspace and social-networking sites are fun if used correctly. They can be destructive if you rely on them to get you through periods of boredom or as a substitute for intimacy. I have a Facebook account, but I am thinking about using it just for business-related networking. I don’t care if someone I haven’t talked to in 2 years just put up new pictures of her trip to Detroit. If I did care, I’d ask her about them. Information-gathering is just a symptom that many of us suffer from because of the larger sickness of communication overload and lack of real intimacy.

4. Have a real conversation every day. You are probably laughing right now. That seems pretty easy! But, there is a catch. You must talk with someone for at least 20 minutes at a time with NO interruptions. No phone calls, no looking at the TV or internet while you talk. Just face-to-face conversation. Eating is ok. You’ll be surprised by how tempting it may be to distract yourself with other things or quit early! Don’t worry, the more you do this, the better you’ll get at it. Your parents used to do this. Why can’t you? 20 minutes. It’s all I ask.

Final Thoughts

As I got off the train from downtown, the robot-man in the suit was still on his phone. The couple behind me was still plugged in. just about everybody there was doing SOMETHING. They were almost all connected to death, one way or another. Connected to so many people, yet so alone.

All these forms of communication, interruptions, and shallow conversations are probably not leading us anywhere good. I fear that the art of conversation will soon be on the endangered species list as we evolve into robots more and more each day. I watch my friends, family, and peers plug themselves into these forms of communication overload completely oblivious to the quality of intimacy they are missing out on and unknowingly aching for in their lives.

Each time I am interrupted on the phone by a “hold on, I have another call” I long for a continuance of what I was saying, or what I was hearing. But this isn’t to be. Maybe it’s a hopeless war I am fighting, but I still want to fight. If I lose, I lose, but for now, I’m unplugging myself. Anyone care to join me?



  • escapee November 2, 2007 at 10:04 am

    A very thoughtful post. There is a distinction between loss of communication with those you want to be with versus people that you don’t want to be with, however (note your previous post that shows you ways to use technology to avoid interaction with annoying coworkers). One is to be lamented, the other not so much.


  • Mike November 3, 2007 at 9:52 am

    Very true! The kind of communication I’m speaking of does have its uses, but the problem is that it’s infiltrated our personal lives as well. It’s just too new and overpowering for us to completely have a bead on yet. Perhaps in time, we will.

    There is a big difference between how we interact with strangers and how we interact with our significant others (like the couple on the train)


  • Porcelain Interior November 10, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    The world is getting rather impoverished in the area of human intimacy. I think it’s becoming an increasingly shallow “HEY LOOK AT ME!” type of communication system.

    I started noticing it with cell phones, they became status symbols, and when that novelty wore off being on one constantly became a symbol of how popular and special you are, so special you cannot even drive without talking on the phone.

    Myspace and the like are all places to show everyone what we’ve been buying/doing or how skinny we’ve gotten or how much cooler our faux personna is than the next person.

    It’s all just so tiresome and fake.

    Glad you are keeping it real.



  • Mike November 13, 2007 at 12:18 am

    Thanks for your comments, Porcelain. Great name, by the way! I always thought the “look how skinny I have gotten” public dieting is really funny too. It’s ironic, because most of the people online dieters pander to never even see the results in real life!


  • Redraven17 November 13, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    I know exactly what you mean and it’s just so insane that people have forgotten the meaning of a true conversation. For example, I was out to dinner with my boyfriend one night, and I just remember we sat there, and barely talked. Granted the table we were sitting at was longer than either of us were used to, but it was like neither of us had anything to say. We were having a nice night together, just him and me and we had nothing to say. We spent alot of the night just looking at our menus and occasionally at eachother. It was really weird, but your entry just got me thinking, maybe the reason why we had so much trouble talking in person, is because we spend so much time chatting online or texting to eachother that when we actually have time to really talk to eachother, it’s difficult. I seriously felt like my mind was just blank… and it seemed like he was having the same problem. Now.. I’m not saying we never have conversations, but it seems like it is becoming more and more of a rare thing in the world.. and I find that to be very sad!


  • Annette November 13, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    I was having a similar conversation the other day with a good friend of mine – we both realized that we had become so “addicted” to the internet that being without it was disastrous. It’s strange because we formed our friendship online – chatting away the hours for years on end.

    When I finally met this friend in person I was nervous we would have nothing to talk about in person. Luckily, that didn’t happen. However, with everyone you meet becomes a “friend” online through facebook or myspace how do you even distinguish your real friends anymore? How do you keep it all real when the social norm asks you to continuously broaden your social circle?

    It’s terrible that you felt like there was nothing to talk about with your bf…In person, I don’t know what emoticon I’d use to convey my feelings to you…I wouldn’t want to use such a trivial gesture. I don’t know if intimacy is really dying per se, but perhaps all of us could integrate some of Mike’s suggestions into our own life.


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