As we become increasingly comfortable interacting online, it's possible that our offline behaviors may shift as well. But in the meantime, meetings between the two can make for some seriously awkward connections.
I boarded the No. 2 subway heading uptown to Penn station yesterday, and I snagged a seat—as I often do—near the door. A young woman sat down next to me and began to rummage through her bag. I could sense more than see (I was busy reading an article that I wanted to blog about) a man moving toward us. As the figure passed us, he said hello to the young woman who pleasantly acknowledged that she knew him. He stopped to stand over us and began to make small talk, all the while she continued to dig through her bag until she finally pulled out her iPod. As the initial pleasantries reached their end, an awkward silence ensued. The two knew each other from the gym and beyond the question of when the last time either of them had seen a certain instructor they had little to compare notes on. The young woman seemed as though she was looking for an out. “Sooo,” she said, brandishing her iPod in a way that suggested the conversation was over.
And he chatted on. Her answers, though pleasant, were decidedly short. I managed to scribble a quick transcript of the conversation on the article I was reading. Here’s how the conversation played out:
Him: I haven’t seen you in awhile!
Her: Yeah …
Him: So are you going to Penn?
Him: You don’t live out east?
Her: No. I live here, in Manhattan.
Him: Oh, I live on Long Island. If I didn’t have kids …
Her: Yeah, it’s expensive.
Him: Well, yeah. But also the schools. I would have to pay for the type of education my kids get on Long Island.
Her: [Nods politely. Casts sidelong glance at me.]
Him: Are you married.
Him: You live alone?
Her: No, I have a boyfriend. No kids.
Him: Married 18 years.
Her: Congrats. [Fiddles with iPod.] Wow.
Him: Are you planning to get married?
Her: [Pause] Uh, you never know, right? [Sticks an earbud in her ear.]
Him: Well, you’re young. It’s a challenge. Yeah, it’s challenging.
Her: [No answer.]
Him: Okay, I’ll let you listen to your music.
Her: Oh. [Chuckles.] Just trying to zone out after work, you know?
Her: Have a good night.
Him: Yeah, you too. I haven’t seen you in a while.
He moved to stand in a doorway. She exchanged a glance with me as she slid back into her seat and rolled her eyes in his general direction. The exchange left me thinking that though we are increasingly comfortable interacting online and sharing information with people we don’t know very well (remember friending your cousin’s sister’s boyfriend’s bother’s coworker after meeting for three minutes?), we’re still hesitant about public sharing offline and this becomes apparent as we probe for information that is readily available via any number of the digital networks we belong to.
The two didn’t appear to know each other very well, but if they were Facebook friends it’s likely that they would have known many more details about each other despite this lack of closeness—where they live, spouses and significant others, perhaps even birthdays. We have traditionally been taught to be careful about offline interactions. For example, we have been taught from a very young age to be careful what you say to “strangers”—you don’t tell strangers your parents aren’t home when you answer the phone. This lesson grows with us. On the subway, you don’t announce where you live, whether you live alone, whether you’re married. You never know, after all, who may decide to get off at your stop and follow you home. Of course, this may happen if you say nothing, but many believe it’s simply wiser to keep those details to yourself and share them in a more controlled environment.
That is one aspect of social education, but it runs counter to the other view that is emerging: We’re also being trained to think that we should know this information because people share this type of information online freely. I know many new couples who excitedly “announced” engagements via Facebook, and then were just as excited to change their status from “engaged” to “married.” The danger of sharing information about living arrangements and travel plans online are no less—industrious thieves and harassers have this information at their fingertips if they want it.
Why are people comfortable sharing so much online? Possibly because online interactions via Facebook and Twitter (and even through this blog) allow us to interact with a a degree of distance. We can post information, but short of a comment or a “Like,” we don’t really have a sense of how many people are processing that information. In this way, we behave as though we can control the disbursement of personal information on the web. Privacy settings work to reinforce this sense of safety, but there are no guarantees that the people you want to share with aren’t in turn sharing your information themselves, even if it’s inadvertent. In offline settings, there is a greater awareness of how many people may be listening—I don’t think that we’ve fully grasped that even more may be listening online.