When Kathryn left, I looked forward to the freedom I would have with the Peace Corps’ policy on communication to home. Unlike Aaron’s mission, we have access to Kathryn through every means we had when she was away at college. She has a phone we can call whenever we want (thank you Skype for cheap international phone calls!). When she is hanging around her internet cafes, I can IM with her, see photos she’s posted on Facebook, or see what she has recently tweeted.
And yet, now that we’re several weeks into this Peace Corps thing, I have realized I have become one of those ‘you never call me’ moms. Sure, I see something from Kathryn just about every day online. I can tell she’s been on the internet and she has put at least a few snippets of information out there for me to see. But, for the most part, by way of information, it’s pretty thin. I know she has many, many friends and family members who are vying for her time, and since she is on the web, she is also looking at the news back home, catching up on the latest NFL draft, and reading her latest Twitter feed all in an effort to remember something familiar about her life.
There are many, many things that compete for our time when we are online. I understand this, and yet, here I am, the mother of a daughter literally living half way around the world, and I really want to know how she is doing. I think I am the same way these days: can my friends or family really say they are in better touch with me simply because I have a strong online presence? Probably not. I always have several tabs open on my desktop, literally and figuratively.
I read this article recently about studies that have been done regarding multitasking online. College students who simultaneously study while also texting and social networking are much less likely to retain the material they have studied. Those who are willing to set aside communicating with their friends or doing online activities and just focus on the task at hand succeed at a much higher rate. It is being considered the new ‘marshmallow test‘ to see if people can delay the gratification of checking one’s email or phone until more important things are done.
Since I have one Peace Corps volunteer I know well, and one LDS missionary I know well, I have had an opportunity for some comparison. In contrast to the Peace Corps, LDS missionaries lead much more structured lives. They have their days packed with a lot of stuff to do, and communication with their families and friends is relegated to essentially one hour of online time per week. Sure, they take a little time at other times to write snail mail, but honestly, as time goes on and they stay out in the mission field longer, they run out of time to do even that.
Now I’m wondering, as I compare, if the structure Aaron has makes things more efficient; if it’s actually better to compartmentalize your time and focus on just one thing. I don’t complain about not hearing from him as much: we have a system, and that system works great. These missionaries set aside time and focus on what is important in the moment. Some days it’s serving people, some days it’s teaching, and some days it’s communicating. When it’s time to communicate, that communicating gets all their attention and is extremely efficient. Structure and discipline breed efficiency. I wonder if that could be true in many places in our lives.
I know the missionaries get some general guidelines and tips about communication when they head out on their missions. I have never seen the list of ‘rules’ and I actually don’t even know if there are any hard and fast rules. But, it is clear Aaron is keeping his own rules when it comes to communicating with us, even if they haven’t been told to him. My thinking is that those rules apply to many things in our lives, especially when it comes to communication. Here are Aaron’s rules as I perceive them:
Communicate once a week without fail–predictability is an essential component of communication. Even if the messages aren’t long, if there is an expectation that someone is going to get information on, say, a Monday afternoon every week, then there is great comfort in that. I think it works in many places in our lives. If my son knows I’m going to be home when he gets home every day after school, even if we only talk for five minutes, it’s a productive five minutes, and it’s the predictability that breeds the comfort in the relationship. The messages don’t have to be long, they just have to be there when other people expect them to be there.
Email your family first, then friends–prioritizing is key. I had a professor tell me once, “Information defines relationships.” Those with whom we communicate most are those who are most important to us. It’s just a fact. If the people we work with know more about how we’re doing than our spouses, for instance, we know there is a problem.
Keep things positive–People who live far, far away who cannot help with immediate concerns will just sit and worry if they hear bad news. I had a friend tell me that his mission president said, “Tell me all the bad news, tell your parents all the good news.” It’s not a bad policy to only tell the bad news to someone who can actually do something about it.
Any negative or sarcastic remarks made directly at people who we don’t have much time to communicate with get to spend a week or two mulling over some minor comment. There isn’t enough time for negativity. Isn’t that a good rule no matter what our circumstances? Do any of us have enough time to smooth over negative remarks? I doubt it.
General information should be shared generally–we can spend our whole week emailing people the same information. People ask via email or FB message: ‘tell me about how you are doing! What is life like over there?’ and we just repeat the same information over and over again. That is what blogs are for: put out the general information so everyone can see it, and save the emailing for specific, personal messages, which should be much shorter and easier to manage. I would hope we are all using our social networking powers for good: keeping people in the loop about general things in our lives. Then when we go for personal communication, it really is personal.
I think we all need more structure and discipline in our lives when it comes to information. Let’s focus on what’s important, and when we focus on it, give it 100%. Even if I only can connect with those I love for a brief period, I hope I am predictable, that I can give it my all, and that people will be uplifted by me having taken a few minutes of their time. We are pulled in many directions: let’s create an anchor for ourselves that makes it a little harder to be pulled from the important stuff.