Lately I have taken to calling my peers, collectively, “Generation Flake.” My writing today, and the response (or, more likely, lack of response) it elicits, should be an answer to this query:
Is this epithet warranted?
Flakery – which I’m going to define as habitual failure to follow through on social commitments – is like a new piece of tender in the social economy: we all accept it. And by “we,” I mean the people who are living on their own without children. We may claim to hate flakery, but at the same time, most of us keep it in our back pocket – myself included.
Before writing this, I wanted to make sure flakery wasn’t peculiar to my own social circle. So I ran it by my friend’s brother. I said, “Do you feel like people just don’t show up to things anymore? Like, do your friends say they’re going to do something, and flake at the last second?”
He said he was guilty of it. Actually, he said he does it so much, his friends started calling him Bailin’ Ben.
I know, you guys. I know. With a slew of in-home entertainment options (and their sunk costs), it’s tempting to be lackadaisical in our free time. The effort it takes to stay inside with a movie or a book or a game is as close to the x axis as it gets – easier than going outside to be with people. And the list of potential scapegoats is well established: Weather. School/Work. Sickness. Tiredness. Lack of funds.
But flakery is a problem, and here’s why:
- It makes people feel unimportant in a concrete, nondelusional way. The flake implicitly denies that other people’s lives are as real and as important as their own.
- It replicates like a virus. By flaking, you give license to others to do the same. And even if you don’t flake, you make it socially acceptable by accepting it.
It’s no longer particularly weird for people to not show up to an event. With some, it’s gotten to the point where you’re more surprised when they do show up.
Now let me say that I don’t believe most people are so inconsiderate as to make plans with the intention of flaking, but they probably do commit to things that they’re ambivalent about, knowing they can easily fire off a text message a couple hours before the scheduled engagement or post an apologetic message on Facebook the following day. YEAH: Like so much social commentary, this one’s about to turn to the Internet.
The Internet is interesting. As a source of information and entertainment, it’s decimated our need for one another, and the social networks dull the pain of that loss by making us feel like we’re still maintaining a social life, just online.
But on Facebook, no one ever says “Guess what happened today?” like they would to a person. They just go straight for the report.
And no one ever asks “Who’s the richest woman in the world?” or “What time do the Packers play this week?” or “Who won the Wisconsin Senate race?” because they can just look it up and get the answer with more authority in less time and with less ego risk than it would take to pronounce the question and listen to someone answer it.
We all know that we’re interacting with real people when we use Facebook or send a text or email. But it’s like that knowledge is abstract, trapped in the intellect; and I make that assertion because online communication has taken on qualities – intermittent, coded, self-centered, lexically deficient – that we would use to communicate with machines. Tangibly, we are contacting mere machines. And using an electronic medium necessarily means that we are not there to see the person when they receive the message, which further undermines the human property that was supposed to constitute the very crux of communication.
And this brings me to the next thing I want to address: awkwardness.
Lately – like in the last four years or so – I’ve heard a lot of people refer interactions as “awkward.” These incidents are almost always in real life, which is the term I’m going to use to distinguish palpable life from the 5+ other iterations (Facebook, Twitter, OKCupid, Tumblr, texting, etc.).
Awkwardness is especially frequent in a society like that of the United States, where social conventions are suspect (too Continental?) and being polite is less important than being downright “real,” particularly if you’re under the age of 30. Our slate is, while nowhere near blank, sparsely filled: we don’t have strict scripts to follow, and the scripts we do have are being cast aside in favor of some socially sanctioned form of disingenuous candor borne of the cult of “not caring what people think.”
But with or without decorum, life is full of awkward situations: tripping on a rogue sidewalk slab. Being called the wrong name. Asking a woman who’s not pregnant when she’s due. Walking into an unlocked bathroom to see that someone’s already sitting there. Asking someone to repeat themselves more than twice. Waving to someone who doesn’t see you. Waving to someone who was waving at someone else. Saying “I love you” and getting “thanks” in return.
Real life is unpolished and always will be. No matter how far social technology advances, real social life cannot be engineered, only avoided. In the physical world, you can’t blatantly ignore a question or invitation; you can’t respond to things at your leisure; you can’t refine every message until it says what you want to say.
I feel like no one ever talked about the awkwardness of social interactions until about five years ago. It’s like we crossed a threshold where the majority of our interactions were electronically mediated, which put the unprocessed nature of face-to-face time – something we never noticed before – into sharp relief.
Our awareness of and aversion to awkwardness is made worse by the fact that oftentimes there’s no particular moment where you meet a particular person. By the time I encounter people in person, I’ve often already come across them in one of their other iterations. This leads to one or both of the following problems:
- Preconceptions. That in itself isn’t really different from the past; you might have a mutual friend or acquaintance and what you hear from them could inform your opinion. But here’s the new part: it’s possible, if not common, to hear about a person from the person himself before you meet him or her. Example: one of your friends is friends with the person on Facebook, so you’ve seen the profile. A more overt example: you read a person’s online dating profile before you date them. The preliminary information’s substance and style, content and context, are written/photographed by the most highly interested and positively biased author possible. That is new.
- Bona fide awkwardness. This arises because the moments of “Hi, my name is Molly,” and “This is so-and-so,” and “Nice to meet you” are increasingly rare. Rather than an introduction at a defined point in space and time, our entry into other people’s lives is more like an infiltration. It’s particularly noticeable to me at work, where I use chat to communicate as needed with an ever-changing handful of people in my department, learning their names and avatars, and developing a shadow of familiarity, a superficial/artificial rapport built on excessive !s and s to express the fact that I’m on their side.
But by using the avatars, the photo directory, and general inference, I put the names with the faces over time. And still, almost every day, I get onto the elevator with someone whose name I know and who knows mine, but we act like we don’t know each other, because we’ve never formally met. And once you’re in that inert social space not between two undisputed strangers but between acquaintances who are uncertain of their acquaintance, it is very hard to get out.
But it’s not hopeless. I know because, one night not too long ago, I went to the office to get a pair of shoes, then got on the elevator with a writer who had just finished working. I made some comment like “Long day?” We made small talk about how late it was, and eventually she said, “Molly, right?”
I felt relieved and strangely validated: she acknowledged that the person she occasionally chatted with online was the same person now with her on the elevator. I had an idea of her name too, so I said it, with a reciprocal question mark. (Fortunately I was right.) We smiled in earnest and wished each other a good night as we stepped off the elevator.
I think this occurred mostly because we were willing to engage one another: for once, two people got on an elevator and no one went straight for their phone. The hour was off, the weather exquisite, the work done, the shoes secured. I told myself to hold on to that feeling, to remember how low the stakes actually are in these quotidian situations. Really. We could make this postmodern excuse for a social life so much better if we just did one thing: Say “hi” in real life.