I call them silent friendships and I am, alas, all too proficient at them: They are relationships with good friends that are increasingly conducted mainly online. We may still relate intensely, but we can go for weeks if not months without seeing each other or hearing each other's voices.
Clearly, I am not alone. A recent Statistics Canada survey shows a decline from 1998 to 2010 in the proportion of Canadians taking part in social activities – on the phone, face to face and especially socializing in the home, with women showing the steepest drop, from 70 to 62 per cent. Along with this has come a fivefold increase in our use of computers for non-work activities.
So does that mean – cue the lonely planet theme – that many women are home alone in their bathrobes, glued to Facebook with a glass of wine and, as one expert put it, a sense of "illusion" that they are more social than they really are?
My mode of online social communication is e-mail, not Facebook or Twitter or any instant messaging."E-mail," gently scoffs a male friend, "is now texting for the older set. Everyone else texts."
Whatever the method, this kind of Send-and-Receive emotional connecting has clearly replaced the phone – the phone! I sometimes recoil when it rings. Who could possibly want to talk to me at this (name any time) time? I even prefer to just text my husband now – "are you leaving work yet?" – although I am occasionally unnerved that his smart phone for some reason turns the short form of his name, Mar, into "Mary."
In fact, smart phones may be the emotional gremlins of silent relating. A twentysomething guy sheepishly told me that he was texting his mom, after she texted him asking if he was going to drop in. He thought he was texting "just for a sec" but the phone changed it to "just for sex." Luckily he caught it in time.
Bloopers aside, online communication between friends may also erode what used to be axiomatic in sustaining close bonds: getting together.
Canadian women clearly spend hours online. Tired from their day's work, both in and out of the home, they still want to connect. If they do it online, they don't have to apply lip gloss, find something acceptable to wear, or – and this may be key – spend any money. All they have to do is power up.
"I have one friend I see only in the summer. For the rest of the year, we e-mail, and it's totally adequate," says my hostess at a dinner party.
Yet most of us would agree that silent communicating is not emotionally sustaining. My week feels pretty desultory if I haven't seen at least one good friend and caught up over coffee, dinner or a shared activity.
Online relating is an efficient way to manage and maintain your friendships for all the obvious reasons. You can quickly text or write on someone's Facebook wall, "Thinking of you!" without the long phone chat. You can thank a friend, promptly. You can assuage your guilt for not paying more attention by sending a chatty e-mail, which also can feed the soul, even saying things you find it difficult to say in person. And of course you can initiate actually getting together (and then sigh virtually when you've got to cancel – yet again.)
Back in the days when people used the phone, there was the voice mail flip off – what I used to call phone-y relating –in which folks who didn't really want to talk would call hoping you were not home (yesss!) and leave a voice mail.
I don't think silent friendships are that dismissive. It can be enormously comforting on a bad day to get a warm missive from a friend. And it can deepen or change the conversation when we do finally meet up, because we've already shared our latest family horror story or even our turkey brining recipe.
But sometimes I don't trust my own quick reach for the keyboard. Is it too easy? When you're e-mailing a friend, it's still one way – your way. You introduce the topic and control the narrative, whether it's what you did on the weekend, or how things are at work.
Interestingly, I have limited online relationships with my two oldest friends, as if our habit of "verballing," as U.S. author Gary Shteyngart labelled voice conversation, has been, well, wired into us. My walk-to-school bestie from the age of 7 on and I call each other almost daily before work, and my former university roommate and I, despite having not lived in the same city for decades, still faithfully get on the phone at least two times a week. "I'd be lost without hearing your voice," she says.
All my friends' voices are irreplaceable to me. For years I have intently listened to them laugh, exult, cry, kvetch, whisper and even seethe, as they have listened to me. One out-of-town friend has such a fantastic laugh that I just miss hearing it. But I drift along, clicking on Reply, not calling. Maybe I'll e-mail and ask her to send me an audio clip of her laugh. Just kidding.
Is there a solution to Silent Friendship? Of course. Pick up the phone, institutionalize monthly coffee dates, or text and say, "gotta talk, NOW."
But as one Toronto teacher, who just accepts that voiceless relating is the way it is these days, puts it: "Better silent friendships than no friendships at all."