The one thing that keeps us from connection is the fear that we’re not worthy of connection.
Brené Brown, Vulnerability Researcher
Do we arrive in Second Life saddled with expectations of social connection? Do the barriers and gaps inherent in a virtual world serve to promote disconnection even among the socially adept? Do our assumptions influence our efforts to connect with others in ways that cause some of us to be ignored, while others become the centres of attention? Is how connected we feel a function of how we think? What do you need to do to overcome that feeling of loneliness, and what are the essential ingredients required for a successful social recipe?
I asked similar questions like these to those present at the last Weekly Basilique Salon on Wednesday, and here is what they said:
“Sometimes,” started Gavin, “We assume others feel the same way we do, and take that for granted. It’s almost as if were expecting them to act or react a certain way but we must always understand, that when we come here; friendship, a lot of times will not come to us, we must get out there, and do what we can to make it happen too.”
The subject of expectations and proactivity came up a lot at our event. While we all come to Second Life for different reasons, many of us come to connect. Some of us however, enjoy our solitude, and sometimes we want different things at different times. I think that might be part of why many of us experience disappointment in any life, we expect that others want and should behave as we do, at the same time, and in the same way.
Perhaps managing our expectations might be the first cure for loneliness in Second Life.
Expectations notwithstanding, a certain barrier to social connection is the lack of body language, which was first mentioned by Lucy: “How we relate to others in RL and how we communicate is made up to a tremendous extent by non verbal communication, most of which we are unconscious of. Here we have the ability to control most of that. So we may be lonely in RL because of the way others react to that body language, pheromones etc, etc over which we have very little control. Here verbal communication is king.”
And sometimes, it’s these lack of cues that influence our urges to connect with others, or with whom to strike up conversations.
“In RL”, Harvey said, “we have a lot of cues. It’s often said that there is no place lonelier than a crowded room. I think the interesting thing is that in RL, a crowded room can give lots of cues. It’s clear that some people will be engaged in conversation with each other while others might just be wallflowers, and open to conversation. “Walking into a crowded room in SL” he continued, “is a very different experience. Past a certain point, a crowded room here tends to just have the hi, welcome back and bye discussion in local, and all the conversations tend to happen in IM so there are very few cues as to who may or may not be available for a conversation and I think that is contributory. I’ve found myself lonely in world, not often, but it’s happened and I’m a pretty outgoing person, and I can imagine that it would be very difficult if you were not.”
Connie added: “The problem with SL is that when it comes to interacting with people it can lack many social skills we use every day in RL such as speech, facial expressions and body language. It can be difficult to relate to people on a meaningful level. In the past I have had some great relationships in SL but I think I have learnt that we might fill in the gaps that we can on see by using are imagination. Maybe we (are) kidding ourselves about some of the people we meet. No wonder we might be some times be disappointed.”
Certainly, we rely on body language to interpret 70% of communication in every day life, the absence of which requires us to do a lot of gap filling about who is open to being approached, and who is not. But, we do have some non-verbal cues, don’t we? What about how we present ourselves to the world, through what we wear and how we move?
Might how we present ourselves to the world have an influence on how approachable we are?
Choosing our targets
“It might just be because of the way I dress my avie,” said Fuschia, “but I have always found that people who wear unusual avatars seem to be far more amiable when you IM them randomly.”
Megan agreed: “If the “fringe groups” are easier to deal with – I think they can simply take it a lot better when you don’t pretend and just are who you are. With the club scene, it often feels like an effort, like you have to put on a nice, shiny, happy facade so people talk to you.”
“Someone also said earlier,” asked Ella, “that people in non-human avatars were more friendly?”
“Yes”, replied Megan. “Maybe because they’re the ‘social outcasts’ often enough.”
Hmm, maybe we should dare to be different? Perhaps “perfection” turns people off?
Mona added that our past can influence how we think and behave in the present: “The environment in which we were born and raised” also plays a part in how lonely someone feels.
Ella differed, asserting that “loneliness is created internally…for me it’s inside my mind. When I’m lonely – I take it as a signal that I need to change something in my life, or if not my life, then just – my day or my week.”
This concept of proactivity – of controlling one’s responses to stimuli in the present moment began to surface as a theme.
“I take all uncomfortable emotions as that though,” continued Ella, “It’s great news, because I’m getting an important message that I need to take action, to make a change, that I have the power to do something.” Gavin responded: “And the true essence of it all is that we learn from it right?”
“Yes, exactly,” Ella replied, “and we get more in tune with what we really want out of life.”
There is a notion I subscribe to that suggests that we are the programmer of our lives, and we run the program, in the sense that our emotional states are to a great extent within our control. Sure, we can feel lonely or sad, for a time, but we are also capable of changing that state of mind in an instant, provided we have the tools and want to do so.
Not everyone, however, has the tools to match the willingness. Some lack the will. Others still allow their past to dictate their present, by placing responsibility for their behaviour on sources out of their control.
What if your parents or other socialising environments didn’t teach you social skills? What if your friends and family failed to foster an environment of acceptance, or even, as one participant said, you have been “made to feel guilty for speaking out about your needs and wants? … Reaching out and getting kicked in the teeth because you did…”
Clearly, this is disempowering. So, what can you do if you come from, or are now surrounded by an environment, that is far from ideal. What can you do? Ella responded: “I think the work, is forgiveness and taking full responsibility for your life and realising your parents did the best they could do (with what they knew). And then you can start to work on who you want to be. How you want to live.”
And practically, how do you actually take responsibility, while at the same time recognising it’s not all your fault that you might experience loneliness sometimes?
“Sometimes you just have to IM someone randomly to start a conversation that lasts for hours.” said Fuschia, “and often make a new friend in the bargain.”
“But not everyone has the same equipment to begin a conversation.” said Lucy, “If you have a massive fear of rejection for example.”
Rejection. Fear. That’s what we’re avoiding when we don’t reach out, yet still yearn for connection. These are not easy problems to deal with. It takes not only the will, but the tools to overcome these challenges.
The simple, yet challenging, bottom-line, cure for loneliness
This conversation lead me to re-watch a TED talk given by Brené Brown, which is related to this very issue of disconnection, how it arises, and what you can do about it. She says we need to do four things:
- Have the courage to be imperfect
- Have the compassion to be kind to ourselves and others
- Share ourselves to have connection, as a result of authenticity
and here is the doozie…
- Fully embrace vulnerability
Brown argues, convincingly, that what makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful. The willingness to say hello first – where there are no guarantees. The willingness to invest in a relationship – that may or may not work out.
What we fear most, however, is vulnerability. How do we avoid it? We numb it. But when we numb vulnerability, we also numb joy, and gratitude, and happiness too. We make uncertainty more certain. We blame, anyone or anything that we feel might be responsible for our pain. We perfect ourselves, in our personal lives; in our Second Lives. We pretend that what we do has no repercussions. We absolve ourselves of responsibility.
Brown argues that if we want connection (and we all want connection), we must let ourselves be seen. We must love with our whole hearts and with no guarantees. We must practice gratitude and joy in our moments of terror. And most of all, we must believe that we are enough, and worthy of the connection we crave.