Between intention and habit

Kelly shares her enthusiasm for paper with a shopkeeper in Old Town Alexandria, April 2015

Kelly shares her love of paper with a shopkeeper in Old Town Alexandria, April 2015

“With all the advantages being online gives us, we’re also offered a set of potential dangers we have to understand.  What we know about how humans react to virtual environments is still in its infancy…In the battle between intention and habit, we need to be able to work out who is winning; who is master, and who is slave.”
Jeremy Dean

In recent years, our holiday gift selection always contains at least one digital or electronic gadget of some kind, and often more than one. I imagine that’s something quite a few of us have in common.

There’s nothing wrong with these handy and amazing little machines, of course. They can make life convenient, interesting and fun in more ways than we can count, and new uses for them materialize every day.

There’s a risk, though, as our world is increasingly made up of our online interactions. It basically means we are always elsewhere, acting and speaking and reading and even thinking in virtual venues that are far removed from our physical presence.

It sometimes seems that the more connected we are in the digital sense, the more disconnected we are with many of the essential qualities that have made people uniquely human for centuries. Is it possible that we are beginning to outsource even our most basic relationships?

I realize that probably sounds like so much psychobabble, but think about it.  What percentage of the words you hear or read daily come directly from someone you know, as compared to the words that reach us via the media — television, movies, gadgets, commercials, computers?

When you are out in public, do you make eye contact (not to mention exchange verbal greetings) with the store clerks, grocers and other service staff whose jobs have not yet been handed off to machines?  Or are your eyes usually on your smart phone?

Do you transact more and more of your everyday business online, where you never even come face to face with another person?

More tellingly, are you most comfortable in the seeming anonymity of the online environment? I plead guilty to that one. Even in the “real world” I opt for the self-service machines every time, at the grocery, library or bank, whether or not I’m having a bad hair day.

Still creepier is the question of whether we’d rather spend an hour with the characters of Downton Abbey or another TV series, than with some of our actual friends. Television characters can be turned off and on at will, and they never ask for favors or annoy us by calling at inconvenient times. How very easy and contained and undemanding! Not at all like actual people.

The irony of writing this message via a public blog hasn’t escaped me. I’m aware that  I’m stepping on my own toes here. However, I do think there is a degree of person-to-person interaction in environments such as this one, which often lead to delightful real-world friendships and actual postal mail that can be opened and read the old-fashioned way.

Meanwhile, I challenge each of us to increase our face-to-face time this year. As a special concession to our busy schedules and geographic separation, I decree that Skype sessions count as face-to-face time– as long as it’s still less than, say, 10% of our interaction.

One of the fun things about being live and in person with Kelly (aka Boomdee aka Petals) last April was the way she made friends with everyone she met, even some non-humans such as squirrels in the park. Plus, it seemed like everywhere she went, she left generous tips. If there wasn’t a tip jar sitting out, she would ask where one was.

It’s hard not to feel happier when you are with someone who is walking around improving the day of every person she comes in contact with.  What cheerful fun! What a great example for me! And it’s a perfect illustration of how an online connection can lead to a fabulous week of real-world interaction.

Let’s all channel our inner Boomdee. Take a friend to lunch.  Visit an elderly person or someone confined to home or otherwise at risk of isolation.  Or if you’re too busy to do these things, start with smiling and speaking to that person at the drive through window who hands you your coffee. Maybe even leave a tip in one of those places where you aren’t expected to leave one.  (OK, I know this will be tough for some of us. I won’t ask for a show of hands on this one. 😉 )

I don’t know about you, but generally speaking, my habits are far more powerful than my intentions.  So Dean’s warning is not lost on me. I plan to become more intentional about increasing the total amount of time I spend in pleasant face-to-face interactions with people this year– and maybe even make a habit of it.

Any thoughts, ideas, advice, suggestions?

This post was first published seven years ago today. Since then, we seem even more disconnected from face-to-face interaction, and the pandemic has only complicated things. But I’m more convinced than ever that we need to make specific, diligent efforts to combat the tendency to isolate ourselves within our cozy, comfortable cocoons of the predictable and undemanding.

The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.

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