Getting to Know You

SNA Landscape
At my London presentation this week on Social Networking, I restated my views that three of the five most important types of Social Networking Applications (SNAs) are about finding people — to love, to make a living with as business partners, and to pursue common cause with. I also reiterated that most SNAs, even when they do enable you to identify what may possibly be the ‘right’ people, are socially awkward: They don’t let you introduce yourself to people the way you would do face to face. And sometimes therefore the transition from an online relationship to a face to face one can be jarring, and occasionally disastrous.

What is this strange process we use to get to know strangers? For many of us, I think, it is a little like the process of peeling an onion, slowly stripping away the layers of the other person’s surface identity, and allowing the other person to do the same, sometimes at different speeds and with different styles and techniques.

In fact, it may be that in our complex, anxious, imprisoning and often hurtful modern society, it’s more like peeling off layers of bandages and exposing the wounded skin beneath. Not something we do easily for strangers, and involving a ritual that takes patience, trust, practice, and tact (or ruthlessness) to accomplish successfully.

It entails to a certain extent a standing down from personal power, a willingness to open oneself and be vulnerable to another person, and hope that person will not exploit that vulnerability. This is less difficult, I think, with children, and with people of certain cultures (notably indigenous ones) where there is less pretense and less psychological baggage to overcome.

The process can involve revealing part of someone’s true nature beneath the surface, only to discover another layer of opaqueness beneath that. And one never knows if or when on has reached the final layer, or indeed if there even is one.

It is unclear to me whether chemistry (e.g. pheromones) helps in that unpeeling, or rather bypasses the need for that mental strip-tease entirely, by tapping into a physical-emotional feedback loop instead of the more difficult intellectual-emotional one. When you have both, the mix is potentially explosive: the two of you, physically drawn to each other, and possibly (but not necessarily mutually) intellectually and emotionally drawn to each other as well.

Even in business relationships, the chemistry, while not necessarily sexual, can be substantial: We ‘blink’ to conclusions about people on the basis of first impressions that are often arbitrary or even unfair, but once established, rarely change. Of the 16Mb of information processed by our bodies each second, only 18 bits are ‘conscious’ processing.

Weblogs, if they are candid, provide a means to allow people to be sussed out and, at least in one direction, short circuit the unpeeling process. Still, the circling around each other and sniffing each other out still must usually occur before the relationship can make that uneasy jump from ‘virtual’ to ‘real’.

What might we do to make the process simpler and less fraught with anxiety? After all, it’s hard enough to filter out the people with the most potential from all those casual online acquaintances in the first place, without having to face the additional hazard of blowing what could be a critical relationship by an unnecessarily cumbersome first physical encounter?

I think we need a new ‘getting to know you in person’ ritual. It should draw on the successful rituals practiced by creatures without language, and by indigenous cultures who seem to be much better at it than our culture. It must allow either party to exit the relationship gracefully, yet still allow both parties to save face. And it must be genuine, free of the terrible risk that one party will deliberately or unintentionally defraud the other into believing the relationship has legs when they really know it doesn’t for any number of reasons (ulterior motives, overcompensation for lack of self-esteem, desperation, loneliness, or even psychopathy).

How would such a ritual work? Anyone studied anthropology or animal behaviour or complexity theory enough to suggest the ‘rules’ for such first physical encounters? The cost of lost opportunity is too great for us to be so abysmal at this critical, often terrifying step in the social networking process. Do we need some agreed-upon non-verbal signals, or scripts, at the outset? Could we usepheromone detectors or other technologies to facilitate it?

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6 Responses to Getting to Know You

  1. MatthewJ says:

    I’m reminded of the Yanomamo men (a pretty violent group, but a functional one, none-the-less), who, upon entering a new village, would stand still in a manly pose, weapon drawn, in the “village green”, and stand there for a while to be inspected by all the people coming by.There must be some good info on other meeting rituals somewhere. Ill look into it…

  2. Karen M says:

    Perhaps if each person wore an identifying symbol, perhaps something more specific than a flower in a lapel… they could identify and observe each other without risk?

  3. Jon Husband says:

    I’m pretty sure a lot of it is chemical, combined with early socio-cultural conditioning that is probably more unconscious than not by the time one is an adult.At least tha’s where I end up whenever I try to understand why some of my contacts blossom into relationships and others don’t.Content counts, of course, but awareness of that (trust of that, i should say) evolves over time more I think.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Weblogs do indeed change the unpeeling rocess .. they acquaint you more with content and other cues earlier, rather than having to deal with the chemical and unconscious first .. better foundation sooner for trust / distrust.

  5. Pearl says:

    Do like the unpeeling process concept.Proxemics linguistics studies cover a bit of first contact rules based on area, language and gender.A first impression isn’t so important as making a continued connection of contact. First impressions fade for people who think, faded compared to continued use. Newness rattles both sides. That leeway is built into first contact understanding.

  6. dave davison says:

    when we met F2F for the few times that has been possible, you remarked about the attention value we both gained from these two encounters – that they were worth 10X in relationship to our online dialog – Were we prepared to gain this value of F2F meetings by our previous online interaction? I think so – both of us were, in a way, prepared to trust and respect each other in personal space by our previous “getting to know you” dialogs online. I think you are on to something very important here regarding the potential value of social networking tools that are designed to combine the best features of the online and the in person experiences.Nancy White of Full Circle Associates is probably as knowledgeable about these issues as anyone I know. Perhaps we should bring her into this conversation.Regards and Happy HolidaysDave Davison

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