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Friendly Strangers

My dual parties this weekend raised an interesting conversation with Josh: at what point does someone cross from being a stranger to an acquaintance to a friend?

Would you answer that different for the face-to-face world vs. the online world?

I’ve spoken to Steve the cart returner at the grocery store thousands of times–does that make him an acquaintance?    I can’t tell you a lot of personal information about him; I know he loves stickers, but I’m not sure if he’s originally from Maryland or moved here or has siblings or is married.  But I speak with him almost daily.  Would it be crazy of me to ask him to watch the twins in the store for a second while I run to get something from the car?  At what point does a person become a trustworthy acquaintance, one that has the potential to help if you need a hand?

How does anyone get to the level of friend if you don’t start taking those small steps towards one another?  Do you need to start placing trust in the person or can you reach the level of “friend” without having that trust tested by being used?

Is friendship always a two-way street?  Can someone be a friend in my eyes but I’m an acquaintance in their eyes?  And if that is the case, can I still say that we’re friends and treat them as such?

Why do people qualify their friends beyond the explanation for how you met?  Why do people judge friendships that begin online and consider them lesser (while you and I might not feel that way, the general public does hold a myriad of opinions on online friendships)?  I knew more about Julie before we met for the first time than I do about Steve.  Had a better sense of who she was despite having more face time and extended conversations with Steve.

Why do you need to meet your online friends face-to-face before the general public accepts that friendship for its full worth?

And yet, how do you build trust with someone you’ve never seen before. Real trust–the sort that would allow you to leave your child with them unattended for a duration of time?  Can you have a deep, trust-based friendship with someone you’ve never met face-to-face?

And on that end, why do we believe that people we meet face-to-face are more trustworthy?  Date rape is more common than being attacked by someone unknown to you.  Serial killers live in communities too.  Knowing these facts, why are people more likely to trust someone they know from face-to-face contact vs. someone they’ve met online?

These were the things we discussed this weekend.  Your thoughts?


1 Bionic Baby Mama { 06.07.10 at 8:55 am }

This isn’t an answer, but your post made me think about another phenomenon I have no answer to: people who you like online but not in person, and vice versa.

I met a number of my local friends via a neighborhood web forum that hosts happy hours. In most cases, I knew well in advance of meeting someone in person whether or not I liked them, but there are two very big exceptions. The person I like in real life but not online makes some sense to me — body language adds a nuance and a sense of self-deprecation that his writing lacks. But the one I like online and find abrasive in person? No idea. The feeling is clearly mutual. So we are buddies online and head to opposite corners of the room at social events. Weird.

2 Waiting Lisa { 06.07.10 at 9:20 am }

My husband and I met online. Not through a dating service or anything. I wasn’t looking to meet anyone. It was just a happy accident.

Sometimes when we have parties at our house, I think it would be much more fun if some of my twitter/blog friends could be there too.

A couple of my friends IRL are twitter friend too and we have become A LOT closer since becoming twitter friends. I would say at least one of them was more of an aquaintance before twitter, even though we had known each other for years. Now I would consider them a friend.

I know I have cried when online friends have received bad news. I feel deeply for them and really care. They make me laugh. I look forward to talking to them everyday. I think that is real friendship.

3 N { 06.07.10 at 9:46 am }

I feel like I have a lot to say on this subject, but I only got about 3 hours of sleep, and I’m lucky I got to work alive, let alone have two words to rub together.

I will say that, in my experience, I’m about equally as likely to trust somebody I’ve met online as in person.

And I wanted to second Bionic’s comments about the dichotomy between people you like online but not in person (or vice versa, in one spectacular case of mine).

4 Battynurse { 06.07.10 at 11:32 am }

Interesting questions. I know that I have connected with and become friends with so many people on line and those friendships are part of my life whether we have met face to face or not. It’s just a great added bonus when we get to meet in person.

5 Kristin { 06.07.10 at 12:41 pm }

There are some people I’ve only met online and talked to on the phone that I would absolutely trust with my children. I honestly can’t define how or when a person crosses from an acquaintance to a friend but I never have any doubt when it happens.

6 Kir { 06.07.10 at 12:52 pm }

I have to say that there are many, many, many women that I call Friends and I only know them online. I would Trust you with the boys….and all the women on my blogroll too…I feel like I KNOW you and I don’t know where that comes from.
Maybe it’s the “maternal instinct”..like when your child doens’t feel warm but you can feel a fever coming on..or when the house is TOO quiet and you know they are doing something bad…or you just feel like something is right, or isn’t right…etc.
I call it my GUT-SY…my gut telling me the truth.

I don’t really know how I get there, but just that if I’m there, I know I’m safe.

7 Tara { 06.07.10 at 1:05 pm }

Very interesting how many people say online friendships aren’t as “real” because someone may misrepresent themselves online…well I have had face-to-face friends misrepresent themselves too.

At times I feel a deeper connection to my online friends because it’s sometimes easier to share those deepest feelings by typing them than speaking them face to face.

8 Mina { 06.07.10 at 1:57 pm }

Oh, there are so many aspects to take into account. For example, I’ve recently reached the conclusion that my Facebook account is useless, because I keep in touch with the people I want to keep in touch via e-mail, phone, RL meetings (when possible). On FB I had quite a lot of ‘friends’ that I have no connection with any more and I really do not keep them updated with what matters in my life and so, all these facts render my keeping the FB account rather pointless. So I deactivated it. To give you an idea, no one realised it in more than a month by now, or if they did, they never asked me why or what happened. This only goes to prove that it was indeed pointless.

On the other hand, I keep my (anon, admittedly ) blog and my online ALI friends more updated than I keep my real friends. I do send them updates now and then, and sometimes a photo of the growing belly, but they have no idea what I have been through as my bloggy friends do. I may not know their faces, but I know a lot of their hearts.

Whom I would trust enough to leave my children with? I do not think that the online/RL criterion applies, I have friends from both camps I would trust and people from both camps I wouldn’t. But I cannot really define WHY. It’s a matter of liking them, I guess. I cannot trust someone I don’t at least like.

And then, just as Bionic Baby Mama said, there are cases when online friendship does not equal IRL friendship. My experience:

There was one guy whom I had a wonderful online relationship, although we worked in the same big office; he was rather shy, the opposite of the outspoken truly yours, so he declared his love in writing. I got seduced by his writing and then we chatted a lot, because the office policy did not allow us dating openly, and the friends we had were practically unavoidable (I shared a flat with two other colleagues), hence we were ‘hiding’ online for a long while. He really ‘got’ me, and I got him and we were always in sync and he was funny and charming. Online! Because IRL he soon got on my nerves, his way of slumping on the couch, of staring at a single point on the wall, of walking without really taking the feet off the ground, his reckless driving, his carelessness as regarded cleaning up the place, eating, shopping, whatever – everything IRL made us incompatible. Ah, not to mention intimacy, which was unattainable, since I felt absolutely no physical attraction. And he was too shy to initiate anything, I didn’t have the drive or mood to, and so, zero success. I think now, in retrospective, that he was rather easily pushed over one way or the other, and this is why we connected so well online, and had so many problems in a real relationship. Although it might be just my imagination. Of course, when I decided to break up with him, I felt awful and a real bitch, because he was (and still is) a nice guy, just not MY nice guy. Since it took him quite a while to get over me (not that I am so ungetting-over-able, he just adapts slower than most to new situations), I decided not to torment him and keep in touch. When we resumed talking, we were both in other relationships and it was easier. Still, he was the first one I told that I met my ONE and ONLY and I was getting married, I felt the need to be ‘fair’ to him. That same night he got ‘inspired’ and decided to go ask out a girl who was rather hung up on him. They married two years later. I would not have thought she would be right for him, she is rather spoiled and selfish, but they seem happy so that it that.

Huh, what was the question again? I digress waaaaaay too much, don’t I? Do you know where I could take a crash course in short commenting?! Because I think I need one…

9 Meim { 06.07.10 at 2:05 pm }

These are such great questions. The only thing that I think is missing from online relationships is the ability to “read” them IRL. Some people just have a gift for being able to say the right things, and it is easy to get lost in their stories online. However, sometimes you can get a completely different vibe by someone IRL. Being able to read someone’s body language and facial expressions is priceless in building trust.

10 Kymberli { 06.07.10 at 2:13 pm }

Interesting questions. I know that for me, the term “friend” is one that I use selectively. I have many acquaintances and very few friends. Then there are those special friends who are so close to me that I consider them family, and I can count them one hand. I have formed a few close bonds with people who’ve met online but never met IRL. I consider them friends – the ones to whom I’ve spilled the private things that reach over and above what I share on my blog. I know that if we lived closer and could further for our relationships with frequent visits — the type to where they let themselves in without knocking and help themselves to the dinner and the alcoholic beverages — then they’re family.

I also echo Kristen — there are people I know IRL who would feel uncomfortable leaving the kids with, but there are a select few people I know online only (or have only met once or twice) and I wouldn’t hesitate to leave my kids with them.

11 Melissa G. { 06.07.10 at 4:30 pm }

I wonder if the people who are so dismissive about friendships that began online are that way because they’re the ones who aren’t truthful about who they are in real life, and are afraid that they’ll be deceived in turn…

I spill my guts out here, so I never question relationships/friendships that start online… I can honestly say I have more true friends that I’ve never met in person, compared to the ones I see on a regular basis and have used their bathroom or ridden in their car… I love my ALI/online friends, and I travled halfway across the country to meet four of them this year. Interestingly enough, the few people IRL that I told about my trip questioned whether it was really a safe thing to do – and I consider them to be fairly openminded people. Maybe we should just excuse them like we do ‘the fertiles”. Because like IF, you don’t really know what it’s like unless you’ve experience it.

12 a { 06.07.10 at 10:12 pm }

I think a face to face meeting is necessary for absolute trust. But, I think there’s a big thing to establishing a relationship through correspondence/distance. I have a friend who used to tell me all the gossip about all of her friends. The reason she could tell me these things was twofold – first, I rarely encountered these people as we didn’t really socialize with the same crowds. Second, because these people were not real to me, I almost immediately forgot any information she told me as soon as our conversation was over. Therefore, I would never try to play her friends off against her. I think that’s part of the reason online friends have an advantage – they have no (known) connection to anyone we know, and so we can complain about people or talk about things that we can’t with someone we see frequently. There are no immediate societal implications to our online discussions. We’re always free to turn off the computer and stop interacting with people and we don’t have to face any hurt feelings we generate. I think that’s what gives people pause about online relationships.

I think your connections happen regardless if you’ve met face to face or not. You could talk to Steve every day and never quite feel the same connection that you have with Julie, because you have a certain amount of life experiences and personality traits in common with Julie that you will never have with Steve.

13 S.I.F. { 06.08.10 at 3:07 am }

I was truthfully always someone who scoffed at the idea of online friendships. I never in a million years thought it would be possible to form the kind of true bonds online that I have with my real life friends… I thought it was weird to even attempt.

Then I started blogging, and my mind has been blown by the attachment I now feel to women I have never met. How is that possible? And when did it happen?

I’m not sure I can answer your questions just because I am so surprised by the relationships themselves. I trust many of these women a great deal and know I can rely on them through even the saddest of moments… There is definitely something to be said for that.

14 niobe { 06.08.10 at 9:08 am }

Whenever I meet someone IRL* I often like there’s something missing. I want to read her blog so I can really get to know her instead of having to (gasp!) talk to her.

*I know a lot of people hate that expression, but I think it’s the perfect counterpart to my URL friends.

15 Dora { 06.08.10 at 2:17 pm }

Online, offline, friends are friends. I think I might have a unique perspective on this. I “met” the woman who helped me become a mother online. We spoke on the phone early on, but most of interactions were online. We didn’t meet face to face until I was nearly 8 months pregnant with my daughter. Her children’s full genetic sibling. Her late husband’s genetic child. Of course that relationship is as real as any other in my life. And talk about trust!!

Oh, and I would also absolutely trust Kristin with my daughter. 🙂 You, too.

16 Bea { 06.08.10 at 6:57 pm }

My thoughts are that, whilst virtual contact is probably underrated, you have to understand the power of face-to-face. Or at least this is what Mr Bea keeps telling me every time they send him off on a business trip. (There’s this thing called email, you know, I say. I don’t know if the IT department at your company has heard of it? Ah, he replies. Blah blah power of direct and personal contact. Bye!)

But it’s true. It’s not foolproof, but you get a lot of information from body language that you just can’t get without the body in front of you, so it is rational to want that sort of contact before taking your relationship to the next level – one more facet of the vetting process, different, and complementary, to reading a blog or emailing or chatting by phone or whatever.

I also think there’s a psychological element to it, because we are wired to identify people by their faces and to put value in those we physically see from day to day. This helped our survival in the way-back-when because it depended on those immediately around us. Evolution didn’t see the internet coming. Unlike the above, this is not a rational basis for preferring direct contact, but rational and human are not the same thing.

As for two-way… I’m not sure it has to be exactly equal in each direction all the time, but it helps, and I think it mostly it needs to be close. Otherwise (sooner or later) one person ends up feeling like a big sucker and then things really fall apart.

I can’t help you with Steve, though. I’m bad with the finer details. I think yes, you do need someone to start taking steps. It’s delicate. I think perhaps it is just natural to us in our childhood or adolescence – we do it without thinking about it – and then with maturity we lose the knack, and then we just walk around trying to remember how it was done, which is hard, because we never actually thought about it in the first place. I think it’s a real developmental thing, like (part of the same continuum as) toddlers developing the ability to interact with peers, instead of just playing beside their peers, but at separate games. We’re supposed to be settled into our tribe already by the time we’re in our twenties, I guess, so there’s no “need” for us to possess that natural ability anymore. Except we modernised and changed everything.


17 Bea { 06.08.10 at 7:26 pm }

I didn’t really mean to say that we lose it completely, but that it becomes more difficult, less natural. Like play.

18 luna { 06.09.10 at 2:44 am }

I would totally leave my baby with some of my blog friends before many people in my “real” life. this from someone who has used a babysitter for exactly 22 minutes in the first year of her child’s life.

it’s true you have a whole other dimension to a relationship (and communication) when you can spend real live time together. but I do think the power of the online world is vastly underrated when it comes to making strong lifeline connections.

I think it has to do with the boundaries and walls we create for ourselves and how we break them down to let someone in. we reveal so much online that it feels as if we “know” each other, but that is only part of a life. similarly, I share much with my “real world” friends about my everyday life, but not as much about the deeper more personal struggles I’ve shared on my blog. what would happen if you asked steve about his life? how much would he share? I do think a certain level of trust has to be established to consider someone a “friend,” whether it’s just sharing information or watching your kids.

19 coffeegrl { 06.09.10 at 5:48 am }

I think there’s still a lingering sense of suspicion about online personas and the people we meet online given that in the early days it was so easy to fabricate false images of ourselves. I think lots of people took advantage of that and saw the internet as a natural outlet for the self they wished they could be or just to create an alternate personality/reality. Nowadays with so much micro-blogging and the niches created among bloggers (much like the ALI community) I think people are more inclined to be open and honest about who and what they are. To me, it’s much easier now than say 10 years ago, to find online people and friends who seem authentic.

And frankly, having spent a fair amount of time in the last couple of years living overseas in a place where English-speakers are sometimes hard to come by, I’ve relied heavily on my internet connection and “friends” to see me through. Many of my IRL friends did significantly less communicating with me figuring I’d be back in person at some point and we’d pick up from there (out of sight, out of mind?).

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