Hashtags, Smiley Faces, and Love

Remember when we were kids and we gave each other simple cut-out valentine cards and those little heart-shaped, multi-colored tasteless candies with pithy expressions such as “Be mine,” and “love u 4ever” on them? Then, as we grew older, there were the ubiquitous chocolates and roses, perfumes and colognes, dinner at jammed restaurants and, for the truly lucky, sexy lingerie or boxers with hearts to be viewed and enjoyed.

But it all became pretty straightforward, ritualistic . . . and stressful. Sales of diamond engagement rings, jewelry and sweet and sappy greeting cards still soar in February. For all the ballyhoo, though, it remains a much-heralded and often feared annual rite of love, joy, disappointment and loneliness for millions of Americans of all ages, ethnicities, genders and religions.

Today, of course, we have social media and a variety of electronic tools to use in communicating with loved ones, families, friends and potential amours.  You typically don’t have to purchase anything; you can simply reach out and touch someone through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, send email notes or electronic cards, text, or use any of the dozens of messaging and dating media available at your fingertips.

Many people now meet through social media or online dating sites. Electronic communication is an established norm, and allows users to more safely probe and analyze a potential love interest or find ways to disqualify them before they actually meet in person.

It’s easy to get excited when you are flirting or feeling drawn to someone, based on repeat electronic interaction. Because so much communication takes place through rapid-fire texts, messaging and the exchanging of photos, a false sense of intimacy is quickly created. This type of personal interaction, warn relationship counselors, also amplifies the desire for immediate gratification and constant access to someone you hardly know.

In fact, therapists say that many online candidates put off actually meeting because they are afraid of disappointment, either in the other person or in facing their own insecurities. The fantasy, in this case, becomes more attractive than reality, due to fear, uncertainty or previous experiences. And because relationships solidify or start to fall apart after several face-to-face dates, many people are reluctant to burst the bubble of an attractive online flirtation and face the variables and challenges present in actual relationships.

These safer online interactions might be enough to gain a smile, spread some warmth, push a boundary or potentially light a fire. And if you grew up with a smart phone attached to your hand, it is a pretty normal way to communicate. But researchers and psychologists looking at the bigger mating picture beg to differ:  In their professional opinions, if you truly want to build, cement or embolden a personal connection, romantic or otherwise, phone calls and face-to-face encounters still are the best way to go.

Electronic Media Distract from True, Healthy Intimacy

We are constantly linked to our phones checking emails and news alerts, scrolling through social media apps, playing games or interacting virtually. Much new research is being done concerning addiction behaviors linked to phones, computers and social applications, but you can do your own research, any day of the week, by walking into a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, library or anywhere people gather and observing their behavior.

Chances are, their phones are on the table or counter near them or they’re using them, even when they’re with another person or in a group. And as long as this appealing electronic candy is there, vying for our attention, we aren’t fully focused on the conversation or interaction going on right in front of or around us. Sadly, our phones are getting in the way of true listening, bonding and intimacy.

Venues for instantaneous communication work for and against us. In the old days, we might pen a letter or write a love or hate email note, and then have the wisdom to sit on it until the next day, when we were thinking more clearly. On the other hand, writing something is often safer than saying it face to face, though you lose the advantages of eye contact and body language, all-important nuances in love and life.

So, while it’s important to not respond to a post or comment when you’re feeling emotionally charged, angry or frustrated, oftentimes those are the emotions that drive honesty, as well . . . if you react on the spot, you don’t take the time to soften the edges, edit yourself or manipulate the message. It’s more from the gut than it is politically correct, and that can have positive and negative consequences.

Remember, also, that everyone is entitled to their own opinions . . .and learning those opinions is an important part of developing a personal relationship. How much do you want to glean by voyeuristically scouring someone’s Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter posts, compared to sitting across the table from them, sipping a beverage of your choice and talking about movies, hobbies, roommates and world events?

And keeping our private lives private is still a valuable commodity – when birthdays, breakups, job woes and vacation chatter is splashed across social media for your “friends” and the world to see, it loses much in the translation, or worse, allows someone to make a less-informed, virtual choice about your potential worthiness as a romantic partner or friend. All without you being able to defend or explain yourself.

Part of the thrill of getting to know someone is through personal exploration. And while you can ask plenty of questions online, it doesn’t replace those quiet moments together when your prospective partner talks about his or her fears, likes and dislikes, families, work associates, dramas and joys. It’s these surprises and this sharing that gain us valuable insight and either turn us on, romantically or fraternally, or push us away.

So, if you’re on the market for a love interest, trying to get to know someone better, or just conversing with a new or old friend, pick up the phone or meet in person. Conducting mating rituals online and playing 20 questions electronically may be less risky than face-to-face encounters, but it’s not as rewarding, either.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!