Building Community in a Digital Age
As a counselling major in a master's program, we often talk about common problems that people are facing. One that has repeatedly come up is a lack of deep connection in a digital age.
One professor spoke about how people used to live, work and go to church in the same neighbourhood. This simple thing facilitated the development of deeper community. Now, most people don't go to work with their neighbours, and a lot of people aren't part of community organizations like a church. We come from many environments instead of being united by living in the community we work in.
In addition, changes in culture have made it increasingly uncomfortable to reach out to other people. Among other things the way the media emphasizes negative stories has created this feeling that no matter what we do the world is not safe. There is plenty of good still going on in the world, even if the news isn’t talking about it. Focusing exclusively on negatives decreases positive feelings of safety and security and increases negative feelings, regardless of what the real life situation is.
If we look at the freedom with which children have been raised, it provides a drastic picture of how our sphere of safety has shifted. Within 4 generations 8 year old children have gone from being allowed to go 6 miles on their own to only being allowed to play only in their backyard. This creates a psychological strain for both parents and the child. The child receives the message that the world isn’t safe without a grown up to monitor them and the parent either senses the judgement of other parents or has also internalized this fear themselves. For parents who can’t let their children socialize on their own, this significantly limits their own ability to develop friendships. I have seen the impact of this mentality in other circumstances as well.
My professor mentioned yesterday that it used to be common for someone to drop in unexpected to a neighbour’s home. Now people feel obligated to make plans and call ahead. My mom has often commented on how no one drops by when I am home with my kids, but she frequently went to visit friends or had them drop by unannounced. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me, but when my professor mentioned that now most people will say they don’t have this type of relationship with anyone I felt relief, because at least I’m not the only one struggling.
My professor also said that it is not healthy to base communities around negatives. While it’s good to fight for important social causes, if your only social relationships are focused around a negative problem, then you will focus on the negatives instead of on the good things. One way you can identify whether a relationship is good for you is by looking at how you feel after you leave your friend. If you feel lighter and happier than that is a sign that the relationship is encouraging to you. If you feel down in the dumps then that is a sign that this relationship is putting a strain on you, which can be common for those taking care of a sick loved one, but shouldn’t be common over a weekly cup of coffee. Spend more time with people who give you life rather than those who drain you.
So now that we understand a bit more about why we are more distant, here are some tips that can help you reach out and build those deeper friendships you want.
Reach out even if you don’t feel like it. We often talk ourselves out of attempting to build relationships with others by being overly concerned that we are bothering them or that they won’t be interested. My professor, a single man, mentioned that he has a friend who is married and has children. He acknowledged that this friend doesn’t reach out to call him, but he continues to reach out to this friend because when my professor calls him his friend is always happy to hear from him. The idea that each person must equally initiate in order to have a good friendship is simply false.
You won’t find out who is interested if you don’t ask. A friend of mine wanted to make more female friends and she started inviting women to her home for her monthly brunch. She would invite the same person 6-8 times and if they didn’t come then she removed them from her invitation list and started inviting someone else. Over a period of three years her monthly brunch grew beyond a size of 20 women and had to be moved from her home to her church. If you reach out 6-8 times then you know you’ve tried, but at the same time it allows you to move on without feeling like a failure. You might not think you have that many people to reach out to, but if you start thinking about it and make a list you may be surprised by what you come up with. (Previous blog post: Reaching out is hard. What if no one comes?)
Channel your negative feelings in a positive way. Last winter I was feeling particularly isolated. Instead of feeling sorry for myself I started looking at what would help me build relationships with others. I started reaching out more to my neighbours, but I also started writing to help me manage my emotions. I didn’t write about my feelings. I wrote about the encouragement that I needed to hear, which has now turned into this blog, among other things. What can you do to encourage yourself?
Be thankful for the good things you do have going for you. I’ve had to catch myself when I start thinking negatively because I’ll often think about my situation as if it’s worse than it is because it’s not as good as I want it to be. I actually do have four neighbours who I will stop by unannounced who will invite me in. They don’t ever stop by my door, but at the very list when I drop by their doors they’re happy to see me and invite me in. So I’m actually doing better than a lot of other people. This is something to be thankful for.
Spend more time on what's working. I’ve spent the last year asking my friends about what they do to help develop a sense of community and build deeper friendships. One of my friends talked about how after she married she had moved far away from where she grew up. When she first moved she spent her time checking on her friends from home over Facebook. This left her feeling isolated, so she realized she had to start putting her energy into getting to know her neighbours and less time wondering about her friends from back home. This shift created a big change for her, which helped her develop friendships locally.
I also like to keep some simple conversation starters in mind so that I don’t have to think up questions on the spot. I’ve started using 3 questions that I can easily remember and can help build positive relationships.
What was your greatest success in the past week? (Even if someone doesn’t have a lot going on they can probably think of one small thing that went well in the last week.)
What have you found challenging in the last week? (An open question that lets you go a little deeper without prying for something specific.)
How can I encourage you? (Bringing it back to the positive.)
Some other questions to think about: What would make you a safe person that people would want to get to know? Who can you reach out to?