I had a meeting yesterday that drove home the dichotomy of our virtual connections. It was supposed to be a standard have-a-drink-to-meet-the-vendor-after-the-conference kind of thing, a chance to see a new company (who will remain nameless) at the Gartner Catalyst show that I am attending and covering for HP’s Input/Output website this week in San Diego.
I had never met anyone from the vendor, nor my intended companion, but both sounded interesting. He brought along his chief nerd and the meeting started falling apart quickly, as Mr. N (let’s call him that) proceeded to fiddle with his iPad. I thought he was queuing up a presentation or a demo for me, so I didn’t give it much thought.
But then I noticed something odd: as long as I was talking to my companion, the marcom guy, N wasn’t part of the conversation. When I asked a technical question, N immediately piped up with an extended and quite cogent answer. It was as if he was present in two different places: online (or in iSpace, or whatever he was doing with his tablet) and in the here and now, part of my press briefing. It was a bit offputting, to say the least.
It became clear that N was socially inept, perhaps somewhere that could be diagnosed, and didn’t want to be part of my briefing. He also brought along his smartphone, and just as I thought I would get at least a nanosecond of his direct attention, he picked that up and started messing with that.
In all of my years of taking these kinds of meetings, this was a new one for me.
It brought home the point: Never have we have so connected virtually and so removed when we are in person. How many times have you gone to dinner and had one of your companions proceed to have a conversation with a caller, one that lasted not just a few seconds but several minutes? Or a series of text messages? A few years ago, I met a friend of a friend who brought two cell phones to the table, and alternated back and forth with calls from both of them. I thought that was rude and odd behavior, but I am seeing that more and more.
According to Pew, we have an average of 229 (or 245) Facebook friends, and we make seven new ones each month. In my generation of older boomers, we have 85 friends in our network on average. More often, I am hearing from my “real” friends who are going dark on Facebook, or defriending their networks down to a reasonable number.
Indeed, history was made this month when I finally topped my 20-something daughter in terms of Facebook friends: but not by my adding more of them. She was doing a mass delete of people that she didn’t remember that were on her network.
I guess this is a natural backlash of being too connected. But I wish we would just learn the basic social graces of in-person connections, too. Take a moment to exit that electronic cocoon and meet someone eye-to-eye and have a conversation. And thank you.