“Hey, remember me? We met a couple of weeks ago at that place, it was nice to chat! Would you like to go for a walk with me next weekend?”
“Sorry, mate, that’s taken. Does next Spring sound OK?”
“Hi, how are you doing? I recently read your article in such-and-such, and would really love to discuss it.”
Time and time again over the last year I’ve had dialogues like these going on via Facebook and my phone. And not just once or twice — I can name about three dozen instances of people with whom I had become acquainted and with whom I wanted to develop relationships. With some people this effort from my side occurred two or three times. We are not talking romance here — just plain human connection.
It so happens that the people with whom I had spent most of my time for years have suddenly become unavailable. Of course, I do have some quite close friends; however, all but three of them share a fatal flaw: they live outside the UK, which makes it difficult to share an afterwork coffee or go for a Sunday walk.
For the first time in my life, I have received an avalanche of non-verbal refusals to communicate. On multiple occasions, people would turn down my proposals to meet up, without ever suggesting an alternative time or date. Others would just not respond. I have spent time in a communicational near-vacuum.
I have used these instances for self-reflection and I asked myself something that a sensible person should be asking themselves, every once in a while: “Is it possible that I am, in fact, a douchebag?”
The short answer seemed to be “No”.
The longer answer was “Maybe not”.
On the “No” side: when people get to know me, they value my company and make considerable efforts to keep our relationships going — and this is reciprocal. When I return to Paris, St-Petersburg or Moscow, where most of my University friends are, each time I meet someone new. I get invited to places and my circle of friends gets bigger and bigger. I have never studied in the UK. If you have nothing to start with, there is nothing to grow.
On the “Maybe” side: I have known all my close friends from the days of our studies, when free time was abundant, as were the casual connections which then could be crystallized into true and tender friendships. There was time for them to get to know me, and appreciate my positive sides, while overlooking the negative ones. Maybe, after all, I have become too difficult to communicate these days?
I took some time to reflect on what I had experienced, and here is what I came up with about the reason for my loneliness, and that of others:
Living in a big city provides endless opportunities. This also means, in fact, that we can pursue as narrow an interest as we choose. For example, we don’t have to just collect stamps — we can collect only stamps of duck-egg blue. Our interests can be narrowed down from just “architecture” to “architecture through social development in the post-war era”. We discover new writers or musicians that resonate with us, and need not confine ourselves to the mainstream. This means that comparing book tastes happens in a dialogue like this:
“Do you know this Nigerian author? He is the best! The way he describes his country’s traditions and context is just fascinating.”
“No, never heard of him. I find African literature too self-centred and that it cuts corners too much. But do you know this German philosopher? The way he nails Derrida is just a killer.”
“No, never heard of him. I find German philosophy obscure and boring.”
On their own, such small exchanges seem trivial, but successive examples leave little upon which to build a relationship.
When we are young, our view of the world is more tangible; we are not too concerned with ideology or big ideas. We are just excited when people talk to us.
As time goes by, our view of the world becomes more rigid; we know ourselves better and also have a better sense of what it is we definitely do not like. Today, a part of me dies when I hear “I hate gays / immigrants / other races”, “I am hugely patriotic” or “everything you have in your life is your own choice”. Honestly, I just want to get up and leave right in the middle of such sentences. This never used to happen.
We tend to be more forgiving towards existing relationships, because there is already a history and development, but are less prepared to disregard the shortcomings of our new acquaintances, as the emotional stakes are too low at that point.
As we progress in our careers in our mid and late twenties, work becomes more and more time-consuming. Add to this some worries about finding a romantic partner, or about the need to maintain existing relationships and family ties, and you find you have no time for new people. When your 12-hour-a-day work allows, it’s natural to invest in relationships you already comfortable in, rather than starting new ones which may or may not turn out to be worthwhile.
You have just opened a new business? Congratulations, you are bound to see worried eyes or constantly hear phrases like “Is it better than office job?” “What about your cash flow?” “Do you feel the effects of the recession?” Nothing you actually want to share about your business will make any sense to others, because you will be too irritated to give the entire context. People won’t get it. Why would you save on drinks in a pub to invest in your enterprise?
If we are to go far, we are in for high chances of ending up alone.
I choose to not take personally any refusals to communicate; they does not mean that I am a bad person.
In the “good old days” when people “knew their neighbours” and had “a sense of community”, people had to participate — there was little choice. If you fell out of this circle in yesterday’s more or less secluded community (no internet, no telephone, tough transport connections), most of the time you were fucked. But now, in the cities, we don’t have to put up with unenjoyable people . . . and we shouldn’t have to.
This situation is a part of rising complexity among human beings and, as I see it, it will only get deeper and deeper. The main way out seems to be through developing true self-sufficiency. But can everyone master that?