It’s been said that my generation is simultaneously the most connected and the loneliest thanks to social media. Millennials: those easily-distracted-by-technology entitled narcissists who live in their parents’ basement and want a trophy just for showing up. Whether you think that statement is true or otherwise, millennials are reacting to change, challenging convention and embracing the digital age. Our phones are always within reach as we’re dependent on continuous technological connection, our anxiety ramped up due to FOMO, aka the “fear of missing out.” But with a constant virtual connection comes a human disconnection. It leaves psychologists wondering if future generations will have the capacity to attain and sustain in-person connection.
This is a valid fear. Observing the public reveals a typical scene: people glued to their glowing phones instead of interacting with one another. Despite this disturbing phenomenon, it’s still possible to use technology and form valuable connections across the globe leading to a better cross-cultural understanding. My way of connecting to others is through writing, and it doesn’t always involve technology.
“Dear Lisa,” I write, pausing for a moment to gather my thoughts and review her most recent letter. It’s written on powder blue stationery with a horse galloping across the bottom. The envelope exposes even more equine obsession, displaying a horse nibbling grass beneath Lisa’s address. A horse stamp is planted in the corner that says SVERIGE, meaning Sweden in her native tongue. We’ve been writing each other for 23 years after our mothers signed us up for an international pen pal program. As millennials you’d think that at some point our letters would evolve into email or social media communication, but we both have a soft spot for the lost art of letter writing. Lisa and her husband are new parents to a beautiful baby girl. They live in a farmhouse near the forest, raising their own chickens, growing most of their own food, and enjoying the simple life. We began as elementary school students discussing our favorite things and exchanging information about our cultures. Now, we write about politics, family life, career advice, and topics we are concerned about, like the environment. We hope one day we can afford to meet, but we are delighted to continue our antiquated correspondence until then.
Since 2010 I’ve kept a blog where I share various creative writing pieces. Years ago a young man left a funny comment on one of my posts, which led to each of us exploring one another’s blogs. We declared mutual admiration and eventually began emailing back and forth, sharing our lives. I found his to be fascinating. Mike worked as an English language teacher in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and also enjoyed creative writing. He played guitar and sang in a punk band, read lots of books, and adored his cat and dog. Soon we began writing a story together, passing it back and forth with each chapter. We would post these chapters on a new blog we created together. We also wrote some physical letters and even exchanged small gifts, such as books and candy. I learned so much about Dutch culture at that time and appreciated getting to know Mike.
“It is our right to seek a harsh revenge,” wrote my Iranian friend Mori. He posted a photo of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most celebrated military leaders, recently assassinated by the U.S. military. Soon after we discussed the situation, he deleted the post. Mori and I had been chatting on and off for a couple years after becoming interested in the poetry we shared on Instagram. Despite our countries being sworn enemies we were good friends and I was astonished when he said most Iranians love Americans, unlike their government, which inspires hatred for America at a young age. But to most, America is admired and held in an almost iconic status. America symbolizes freedom and a promising future – something which they cannot attain under their Islamic regime. Young Iranians especially hold more modern and moderate views than their parents, wishing religion and government were separated. My eyes were opened learning about life in Iran, how he, his brother, and parents all shared one car, and how difficult it was to leave the country due to poor economic conditions and strict regulations. After finishing two years of compulsory military service he desperately sought to become fluent in English and accepted as a PhD student in another country. He dreamt of leaving Iran and leading a prosperous life elsewhere, though he still had some pride in his country. We’d spent many hours discussing our cultures and sometimes we’d have video chats so I could help him practice English. There was a time in late 2019 when I didn’t hear from Mori for a while. Amid U.S. sanctions and a struggling economy, the Iranian government hiked gas prices by 50%. The internet was shut down temporarily to suppress widespread protests. I was relieved to finally hear from him again, but he was too depressed and unmotivated to continue academic efforts towards his escape. He looked melancholic in his latest photo as he leaned against a tree, his deep brown eyes staring off into the distance.
While our digital devices may interfere with face-to-face conversations, and studies have shown that social media can be detrimental to mental health, promoting image over substance, we can still have meaningful connections with people around the world thanks to technology, and even without it, as I have demonstrated via writing to a pen pal. Connecting with people means having a genuine interest in another person – be curious! And be yourself. Listen, observe, learn, and ask questions. In this way you can find common ground, whether it’s virtually or in person. Feeling real empathy for others, helping someone out of goodwill, offering and receiving sincere gratitude, laughing together, and sharing your passions. Writing is my way to connect and I hope to inspire others to share their unique voice.