two people almost connecting

We’re doing the social distancing thing, due to the coronavirus. It feels strange and awkward and new and unprecedented and scary and confusing.

But there is great precedent! We are currently engaged in a vast social experiment: can we continue to work and earn a living, keep up friendships and make new friends, date and experience romance, and obtain the food and supplies and services we need . . . all remotely???

Obviously, some things must be done physically, in person. Truck drivers, for example, must still work, . . . and they are keeping our country alive, like, literally. Let’s send our loving thoughts and best wishes out to them! That being said, so, so much can be done through our technical devices.

This is nothing new. Before humans had the Internet and phone lines, so, so much could be done through older technologies. For example, how about the wonders of letter writing and shipping?!

The book The Brother Gardeners, by Andrea Wulf, is about friendships that people forged in the 1700s around a mutual interest in plants. Some of these friendships were forged between people who had never met, would never meet, and lived on different continents. This book is about plants, sure, . . . but it’s mainly about people and their personalities and their astounding use of the technologies of the time to do things that had never been done before.

The following passage from the book may be, I think, instructive to all of us who are self-isolating and relying heavily on modern technologies to continue living our lives, as best we can. Peter Collinson was an Englishman who desperately desired plants from America. It was both his hobby and his money-making business to obtain American plants and spread them around England and beyond. John Bartram was a plant lover who owned a farm in the American colonies. It was both his hobby and his money-making business to seek out interesting American plants and seeds and roots and arrange for them to be safely shipped to England.

But here’s the drama: there was a power differential between these two men, who sought to be both friends and business partners, and to share their mutual love of plants. The English often assumed that Americans were backwoods bumpkins; and Americans looked up to the English as being more cultured, with more access to books and art. The following passage describes a change in the power differential between these two men—a change which allowed the two to forge a better working relationship, and a better friendship:

“With this reply, Collinson acknowledged that Bartram was more than just a servant or supplier. He and his acquaintances longed for Bartram’s plants and realised how much they needed him for the plans they had for the English garden. Never before had such numbers of American plants arrived in England, and under no circumstance would Collinson risk losing Bartram’s trust and willingness to deliver more. At the same time Bartram understood that he also had some power over Collinson. Slowly their relationship was changing.”

So what’s the lesson here? It’s good to keep things in perspective. Forging human connections remotely is nothing new. It has been going on for centuries. It requires similar social skills to those you would use in person.

Also this: Civility is important. Communicating your needs, and being specific about those needs, is important. Listening to the other person (or reading what they wrote) very carefully and striving to help them as you work together is important. Not being too uppity is important. Understanding your own worth in the relationship is important.

Of course, all of this communication was dependent on the sailors who risked their lives at sea. Yep, some things must be done physically in person.

That being said, so, so much can be done through our technical devices. What changes have you made due to social distancing? Are you able to use the same social skills as you would have in person, or have you had to make adjustments?

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