Sunday, July 29, 2007

Imaginary Friends, Faith and coffee

Since we hooked our computer(s) up to the internet seven or eight years ago, I've made a handful of "online friends". I met most of them on writers' forums and most at the PFFA. We exchange occasional e-mails (sometimes more than occasional) and chat on AOL and comment on one another's blogs. My husband lovingly refers to them as my "imaginary friends" and likes to tell me how they are all just voices in my head. The circle is small: just three or four people and I've known most of them now for at least two years. I'm a "slow-burn" when it comes to making friends online and off.

All joking aside, there's an element of truth to this "imaginary friend" thing. I've taken the information they've given me about themselves in the form of photos and letters and formed an only half-real picture of who they are. I'd love to tell you how good I am at "reading people", that I've never been misled, disappointed or creeped out, but that's not true. Unlike the character in my book, I am not a forensic linguist nor am I psychic; I cannot pick the other person's words apart and determine whether they're telling me the truth or not. I cannot read minds (my mother didn't pass along that gene, I guess). A time or two I actually have been misled, disappointed and creeped out. It happens.

I suppose an element of faith has to come into play in this kind of relationship, but this really isn't that different than real life. Every time we let someone new through our true front door we're taking it on faith that they are who they say they are. For that matter, every time we drive through an intersection, we are acting on the belief that the guy coming the other way will slow down or stop and isn't feeling suicidal or homicidal that day, that his brakes work, that he isn't drunk or preoccupied with cell phones or children. It takes some trust in mankind as well as a certain amount of alertness just to get through the day and internet relationships are no different.

For me, the bigger leap of faith is accepting a phone call from one of these "imaginary friends". Shifting from the person I've conjured to the actual person themselves can be difficult and I'm generally a nervous wreck for the first conversation or two (near stage-fright-proportions) as I work it out. However once or twice I've actually found the person on the phone to be so much more real (better?) than anything I could create in my head, that the nervousness falls away almost immediately and I'm suddenly talking to a friend--not just a stranger with a familiar name.

I had a conversation of this kind on Friday evening. This person and I have been passing each other in the halls of various writers' forums for five or six years so I've had ample time to create unfullfillable expectations. When this person offered to call, I had think about it a little before saying yes--not because of them, but because I wasn't sure I wanted to wade through all the anxiety of trying to carry on a conversation with someone who seems to know me better than I do them (I feel like I'm violating some unwritten social construct). But I decided to take the leap and wound up glad I did. By the end of the conversation I wished they really did live nearby, for inviting them over for coffee seemed like it should be the next most natural step. The conversation was just that comfortable and the other person just that genuine. Honestly, I think it's been a long time since I've chatted that easily with anyone on the phone outside of a couple of people (one of those being my husband). It was a very pleasant surprise.

I guess what I'm driving at is that as the world is changing, how we meet people and make friends is too. The leaps of faith are broader than they used to be and the world is a lot smaller. This means friends and enemies are closer than they appear. So we both have to be wiser and more trusting at the same time, choosing who we invite in carefully (using that all too precious a resource-common sense), but letting them in all the same. Otherwise the internet is only half-used and the world only half-explored and friends only half-real.


Scotty said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mary. :-)

I enjoyed our chat too; as you said, it was relaxed and easy-going. I don't know if it's just me or the Australian way, but I like to think that for the most part, we are pretty laid-back and generally speaking, trusting of people until they break that trust, you know what I mean?

I also think that despite the geographical distance between us, we are, give or take a year or two,of a similar age and come from the same generational background so that we had a good common ground on things we could discuss.

It was fun and I thank you for inviting me in; next time though, I want a cup of Early Grey tea and a home-baked cookie to go with that good conversation, okay?


Thanks again.

Mary O. Paddock said...

I can do that. Oatmeal and chocolate chip, or snickerdoodles?

Scotty said...

I have no idea what snickerdoodles are so I guess it's choc chip. :-)

Anonymous said...

Mary, I trust people new people to varying degrees which goes up or down as time passes.In other words, I don’t trust someone I’ve just met the same way I would a friend I’ve known for years.

I also trust my spidey-senses, my gut feelings. I used to ignore them –because I often have no concrete evidence to back up those feelings. But all too often they (the initial reactions) are right.

The main difference between the internet me and the real me is that in real life I am quiet and reserved. I can write emails that go on for pages. But I struggle with conversations and small talk.

David M.

Mary O. Paddock said...

Scotty, You poor man. You don't have snickerdoodles over there? I'll have to send you the recipe.

Hi David,
I've had people get "under the radar" a few times so, while I listen to it when I have distinct "a bad feeling about this", I don't believe it's foolproof. As for conversational skills: the world is always in need of more listeners.

Dennis Bryant said...

I rather enjoy my "imaginary friends" Any darned fool can prattle on with small talk, but it takes someone with a genuine interest to compose a thought and put it in writing. I can't say that I've ever had a bad experienc, but then I'd imagine it's a bit more hazardous online for women. Good luck finishing the manuscript!

Unknown said...

Ever had an imaginary friend who just doesn't 'get' you? In real life, I'm able to befriend just about anyone, but from time to time people online get ruffled feathers from things I've said.

I wish they could see my eyes or my expression when I'm using my dorky sense of humor.

Ever had a similar experience?

Mary O. Paddock said...

I agree Dennis. Though I think everybody needs to approach online communications with some caution. Frankly, my one "dream job" is to travel to public schools and community centers and teach internet safety to parents and kids.

Hi C.D.
If they don't "get you" then they aren't friends, are they? :) But yes I do understand. I have an off-beat, sometimes dry sense of humor that doesn't always translate to print very well. I think this is where smilies (which a lot of literary people frown on because our words should carry their own weight) come in useful.