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Social Connection

tribal communitiesWhen I was fourteen I went away to summer camp for the first time. For two weeks I lived in a dorm of fourteen girls and had a great time swimming, canoeing, and flirting with the cute guys in the boys’ dorms. We bonded over team challenges and sports activities, bedtime stories and doing each other’s hair. When I got home, I fell into a post-camp depression. I moped around the house, singing camp songs like they were funeral dirges and generally behaving like a teenager. My mother was very frustrated by my drama. I was frustrated that she didn’t get it and there was no one who could sympathize with what I was feeling. There was no Facebook or email back in the dark ages of my childhood. My mother was a little more understanding when, a few days later, I broke out in the most spectacular case of chicken pox that anyone had ever seen. I’m sure it contributed to my morose disposition. My willingness to share the disease also did little to improve my brother’s attitude. It was a fun summer for my mother.

Looking back, I can understand why I was depressed after such an intense bonding experience. I’ve experienced it many times since. I had lost my tribe. Tribes are a group of people that form around a common goal, a shared interest, or shared experience. We all belong to various tribes. Some are based on important ideals that shape who we are. Some are just trivial and fun. I have a work tribe of people that care about corporate finance and leaving early on Fridays. I have a church tribe, a charity tribe that raises money to cure disease, a tribe of people who read actual books, and a Future Wives of Johnny Depp tribe. For two weeks at summer camp, I had turned the thirteen other girls in my dorm into my tribe.

It used to be that social tribes were limited by geography, but that was before the days of the internet. Now a tribe can be formed by anyone, anywhere. In his book Tribes, author and marketing expert Seth Godin talks about the boom of the tribe phenomenon in the last few decades. “Now the Internet eliminates geography. This mean that existing tribes are bigger, but more important, it means that there are now more tribes, smaller tribes, influential tribes, horizontal and vertical tribes, and tribes that never existed before. Tribes you work with, tribes you travel with, tribes you buy with. Tribes that vote, that discuss, that fight. Tribes where everyone knows your name. . . . There are literally thousands of ways to coordinate and connect groups of people that just didn’t exist a generation ago.” Thanks to social media and the internet, the tribe-forming possibilities available to us are endless.

One of the reasons we naturally form tribes is that they support our faith; faith in God, faith in political ideals, faith in iPhones, faith that one day Johnny Depp will make a watchable movie again. We find ways to connect with other people who share our interests and beliefs so that we feel supported and validated. We remind ourselves of our shared faith every time we put on our work uniform, log onto a fan website, or put a “Save the Planet” bumper sticker on our car. When we don’t feel alone in our goals, we believe that change is possible and that is a very important element in happiness.

The difficult thing about this social tool is that life is always changing and there are times when we cannot avoid being disconnected from a tribe. When we graduate from high school or college, we leave that tribe. We may keep in touch with some friends but we no longer have the structure of classes and the common goal of graduation. When you leave a job or move to another city, there is an adjustment period. We can experience a sense of loss when something we have worked hard for is over. High school football seasons always come to an end. Science fairs and ballet recitals come and go. I have many actor friends who go through post-show blues when the run of a play is over and the people who were sharing that experience are not there every day. When you leave a tribe, whether voluntarily or not, many people go through a grief process.

It’s something to keep in mind when our nieces and nephews are struggling with change. It could be something as major as being cut from the basketball team, or as seemingly trivial as missing your friends from a two week summer camp. Losing a tribe is painful. Some losses can be shaken off easily when a new interest comes up, like school starting or One Direction coming to town. We find new tribes all the time. Others may take some time and a sympathetic ear from an aunt. If your niece or nephew isn’t finding a new tribe to follow, do they have the courage to be a leader and start their own? One of my nieces has two blogs about her interests. One started a pony club and another is building a tribe that supports urban gardening. Those are all things that an aunt can easily encourage.

One of my favorite quotes comes from either someone named Frank A. Clark or the rapper Ludacris. The internet can’t decide. It says, “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” Losing a tribe can be an unpleasant obstacle, but it can also lead down a path to amazing opportunities and new friends. Starting something new takes courage and commitment but it just might be the cure to those post-tribe blues.

Smartphone on white backgroundAt a restaurant the other night my friend Priscilla and I ordered the Korean street tacos (our latest “we live in L.A. and we’re cool” obsession), handed the menus back to the waiter, and began a hilarious conversation . . . on Facebook. I love eating out with Priscilla because we are both addicted to our smart phones. We keep them on the table next to our plates and don’t get offended when the other needs to respond to her text messages. It is understood that she is going to check us in on Facebook while I snap and upload a few photos for posterity. We love our phones so much that it amuses us to instant message while sitting a few feet apart. We are not alone. Most of our friends in their 30s and 40s act like ridiculous teenagers too.

What I don’t like are people who carry on about technology destroying our society and how we don’t communicate anymore. Apparently Facebook is disabling our ability to connect and text messages are making us illiterate. I have a master’s degree and a colorful social life. So the naysayers can mind their own business and back off my iPhone. With this thought in mind, I picked up a book (with actual paper pages) by sociologist Claude S. Fischer called America Calling; A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. The book takes a look at the history of the telephone from the point of view of the social change it brought to American society. It turns out, when the new invention first gained traction as a household staple, people carried on about how it was going to destroy our social skills and disconnect families by interrupting dinner. The debate (and fear mongering) has been going on for decades. Fischer’s conclusion is that technology doesn’t decide how our society is going to behave but rather we use it to further our own lifestyle agenda:

“…while a material change as fundamental as the telephone alters the conditions of daily life, it does not determine the basic character of that life. Instead, people turn new devices to various purposes, even ones that the producers could hardly have foreseen or desired. As much as people adapt their lives to the changed circumstances created by a new technology, they also adapt that technology to their lives. The telephone did not radically alter American ways of life; rather, Americans used it to more vigorously pursue their characteristic ways of life” (pg 5).

Technology does not shape our lives; we use it to our own purposes to enhance the lifestyle we have chosen. You can’t blame the phone if you don’t like where society is going. I found another quote that supports my position so bear with me:

“Historian George Daniels puts the challenge broadly, ‘No single invention . . . ever changed the direction in which a society was going . . . [Moreover,] the direction in which society is going determines the nature of its technological inventions . . . Habits seem to grow out of other habits for more directly than they do out of gadgets” (pg 9. Yes, I made it to page 9).

So there, you people who put sad things on the Internet about how we are all plugged in and missing out on life. I almost did a happy dance about finding a bona fide sociologist who supports my phone addiction. Then I started thinking about how I am really living my life, which is never advisable.

My iPhone has apps for NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Comedy Central and YouTube. I have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Skype, Entertainment Weekly, and iBooks. No pointless meme or gratuitous waste of time is going on out there that I don’t know about. I have two televisions, two Tivos, a Blu-Ray player that streams Netflix, a desktop computer, a laptop, and an iPad with the Netflix app—for when I’m roaming around my 900 square foot downtown apartment. It’s important to have a go-to plan when forced out of range from the TV for time-wasting activities like showers or meal preparation. My Bluetooth is hidden by my hair so I can wander around the grocery store without anyone realizing I am streaming the most recent TV show that I am binge-listening. I don’t binge-watch Netflix. I watch the first few episodes so that I get the gist and then binge-listen to 32 seasons of Gossip Girl while jogging or driving home from work. You know, because I wouldn’t want to waste all that time in front of the TV.

This is the technology that does not control my life but is used to create the life I want. It is carefully installed in my house, car and shower stall to ensure that I am never alone with my thoughts. What does an almost 40-year-old single widow, whose life is centered around work and other people’s children, want with alone time? Nothing good can come of that. I might be willing to admit that the emotionally manipulative video on YouTube about the man who does not see his son’s touchdown and the woman who misses the opportunity to make friends at the bus stop because they were staring at their phones, might have a point. Maybe I’m missing something by constantly numbing the voice in my head with pop culture.

In my defense, the one time I make a real effort to disconnect from technology is around my nieces and nephews. I try to give them my full attention. I’ve caught myself picking up the phone while we are at their favorite sushi restaurant that has their photo on the wall, watching Frozen for the tenth time, or riding skateboards up and down the street like they don’t know I’m too old for that. It’s a hard habit to break but it’s important. I’d like to think that if I had children of my own, I would discard the mind-numbing technology and give all my energy to them, so I am trying to do that with the children that I do have in my life. Also, I thoughtlessly put my password into my phone while my niece was watching and ruined the world’s best 4 digit combination, so I won’t be caught doing that again.

It’s a struggle to control my addiction around my nieces and nephews and leave my phone in my bag. But I don’t want to be the one who teaches them this social behavior, which I am finally willing to admit is somewhat detrimental. I want them to know that when they are with me, they are my first priority and not the video of a cat playing the piano. The one question that I can’t avoid is, why don’t I do that for my friends?

I am willing to own up to the fact that I use technology as a crutch, but making dramatic changes to my routine is easier said than done. It is my addiction after all. However, I have made efforts in little areas. I signed up for a writing program that sends me daily spelling tests and grammar lessons to combat Word and Apple’s autocorrect. I deleted the CNN app and installed the BBC, so no more alerts when Justin Bieber gets arrested or Kimye says something stupid. I get a daily email with a spiritual lesson to think about instead. Now my technology is expanding my mind and I can feel better about flopping in front of the TV when my day of high culture (or let’s face it, adulthood) is over.

I will never feel bad about making my Facebook friends read my conversations with Priscilla about how my tacos taste like sandpaper so we should probably jet and get our American Idol on. My best friend and I have an unspoken pact in our phone obsession. But I will admit that technology, social media and pop culture are not as harmless as I’d like to think. It is very easy to let it shape our lives, rather than using it to enhance the productive lives we aspire to.

FriendshipI found an interesting quote from Frederick C. Collins on the daily affirmation wall of inspiration I call my Facebook news feed. Not interesting enough to bother finding out who Frederick C. Collins is, but enough to write it down. It said, “There are two types of people—those who come into a room and say, ‘Well here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.’” In other words, attention whores and attention givers.

Attention whores are really annoying. You know the type. You can hear them screaming “Look at me!” a mile away. They wear pink wigs to parties so people will notice them. They bribe children with presents to ensure they stay the most popular aunt. And they write blogs so that the whole world can share in their brilliant insights. It’s sad really. Attention givers, on the other hand, are truly interested in other people. They listen while making eye contact and make everyone around them feel important. Everybody wants to be friends with someone like that.

Our families have to love us because we are, well, family. We learn to love and develop bonds in the context of our family, and our social skills take root in (what should be) a safe and loving environment. But the time we spend with our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters is really the training ground for everything else that comes with adulthood. We grow up and go out into the world to make friends. Family relationships prepare us for the other relationships that we will need for the rest of our lives.

What makes somebody a good friend? Besides the obvious characteristics of kindness, concern, loyalty etc., how do you guide a child towards becoming one of those people who walks into a room and is outgoing, genuine, and comfortable mingling with all their friends?

The Beginning:  Attachment (yes, I said attachment)

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who is most famous for his experiments in social isolation the 1950s. He was motivated by John Bowlby’s studies of maternal separation, and his claim that children need much more from their parents than simply food. Bowlby, known as the father of attachment theory, had been criticized for his views because at the time, parents were taught that too much physical contact was bad for an infant’s development. In Harlow’s experiments, monkeys were raised in isolation chambers so he could observe the horrible and cruel things that happened to them when deprived of nurturing love. Harlow deprived babies of their mothers and observed that they chose a soft cloth doll that provided comfort over a doll made of wire that provided food and nourishment but no emotional relief. Depriving monkeys of physical contact amounted to torture and they developed severe cognitive issues. I’ve seen the old black and white footage of the experiments and, as an animal lover and a normal human being, I am still trying to block it out. The experiments are very well known and credited with raising awareness of the importance of social bonding. And with inspiring the movement against animal cruelty in laboratories. One of his own students is even credited with saying that “the work was really violating ordinary sensibilities.” Really?

What is interesting about the experiments is that they confirmed Bowlby’s claims about the importance of care-giving and companionship in not just the social development of a child but cognitive development as well. The failure of a child to bond with a caregiver in the early stages of life can have dire consequences. I should warn you, if you are interested in learning more about how our brains and social skills develop through attachment and bonding, you are likely to find more case studies and photos of abandoned, unloved children than you can emotionally handle. Trust me on that one.

What is positive and fulfilling about the subject is the incredible power of attachment to heal and nurture. In discussing Attachment Theory, the scribes on Wikipedia explain, “Infants become attached to individuals who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them. . . . When an infant begins to crawl and walk they begin to use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to. Caregivers’ responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment; these, in turn, lead to internal working models which will guide the individual’s perceptions, emotions, thoughts and expectations in later relationships.” My sister-in-law has a degree in this stuff and talks about attachment research all the time on Mom Psych. The point is that children learn how to relate to other people through the interaction with their first caregivers. What an awesome and overwhelming responsibility for anyone who is close to a young child.

Emotional Literacy

Friendship can be boiled down to one idea—having someone in your life that fulfills your needs. You have to admit, one of the strongest motivating factors in life is “I am being paid attention to? Am I being heard?” Even those people who seem to be so outgoing and only interested in others need attention. We all need our friendships to make us feel like we have value. As we mature, we learn to recognize that need in other people. We acknowledge what other people want and we have to make decisions about whether to give it to them. We decide whether in that moment we are the giver or the taker. Friendships are hard work, like a marriage. The key to real friendship is what we do when someone else’s needs conflict with our own, and the first step in getting through those situations is having the emotional maturity to recognize the conflict in the first place.

In order to create lasting friendships, we have to develop emotional literacy and learn to read other people’s social cues. We subconsciously learn to read body language through example, and that starts when an infant stares into an adult’s face and learns to copy a smile or a frown. Not only do we recognize other’s needs through non-verbal cues, but we communicate respect and empathy through eye contact and body language as well, and that is not something you can sit down and teach someone. Children learn to read other people and develop social skills through the positive physical interaction in their early relationships.

When psychologists talk about the Caregiver, they are generally referring to a parental figure. However, I like to think of it in a much broader sense. Every time I hug my nieces and nephews, bounce with them on the trampoline, give dolphin rides in the pool, or kiss them goodnight, I am teaching them social skills. I am communicating that I love them, but I am also helping their little developing brains to learn how to engage and communicate effectively. I am teaching them how to be successful friends and partners.

All of my nephews and even my nieces have gone through a stage where they pretend to be grossed out by my kisses, and my hugs are a form of entrapment to be wriggled out of like I have cooties. I don’t know what cooties are but I know they are not good. Kisses are currency to be used when I’m not cooperating. “I’ll give you 50 kisses if you come outside and play.” But I know that it is just another way for them to get my attention and start a wrestle. Strong social connections are very important keys to happiness and physical interaction with children in their early development gets them started on the right path. I take great pride in pinning my nieces and nephews down and smooching them or wrapping my arms around them in my lap when we watch TV, because I know that I am contributing to the caring, friendly people that they are going to become.