I’m Ignoring You, & it’s OK: Notes From a Year of Being Antisocial in Meatspace

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It’s not you, it’s me.

If you know me in real life but haven’t met me in person for months, or have met me sporadically this year, then here’s the reason: I actually am ignoring you. Not a specific ‘you’ — all of you. And we’re all better for it.

I came back from a vacation in India just over a year ago, back to the heat and sand and malls and disposable plastic cutlery of Dubai. The trip had been wonderful but hectic, with much of the last two weeks of it spent cramming in as many meetings with as many people I know in Bombay. Returning to Dubai did not change this; a friend was getting married, and several more people I knew would be in town only for a couple of weeks, so off I went being social again. I was blissfully happy to see them all. I was also exhausted.

‘Being social’ is something that still does not come easily to me. Between the years 2000 and 2009 I had very few friends in Dubai, and probably none that weren’t from my brother’s circle of friends. This was less vexing to me than you’d think. I enjoyed being a social hermit, most of the time. I had a mild but growing online presence, and I was that guy who, when sporadically asked by acquaintances why I wasn’t on Orkut or Hi5, why I “wasn’t online at all”, would irately reply that I’d had a blog since 2001 that I posted pictures & words & drawings to frequently, that it even had comments, and what on earth would I do on a social network?

When I did poke around to see what the fuss was about, in the mid-noughties, I joined Orkut and promptly ended up in several awkward meetings with ex-schoolmates, where either I had nothing to say to them beyond pleasantries, or vice versa (I stopped using Orkut pretty quickly after that; the internet equivalent of backing away slowly from a gathering hoping nobody will notice). I became properly social in 2009 — both online & off — when I got on twitter and facebook. My love for twitter is pretty clear: I’m still active there, with several accounts, and it’s my go-to place for a quick dip into the day’s events & conversations. Non-twitter users ask me what it actually is, and I say that when it’s good it’s the best non-stop party you’ve ever been to, where you can simultaneously hold conversations with everyone in the room while listening to everyone else and also comment on what is happening at other parties. This much is still true. When it’s good.

I still sometimes wonder why I’m on facebook, but its usefulness as a network for meatspace friendship ‘management’ (I can’t think of it any other way) has yet to be outclassed. It’s easy to check up on people, arrange meetings, see how they’re doing. I came in sometime after poking had gone out of fashion, and before The Social Network movie, so it was still a fairly decent place to be. If twitter was the nonstop talk party of my dreams, facebook was the somewhat awkward school reunion with a wet bar.

I got back in touch with school people on facebook. I got in touch with hitherto complete strangers on twitter. I met both sets IRL. The latter went quite well. The former was 50/50, with me staying in touch with a few & becoming friends with their friends, and the rest, well… let’s just say that when you meet someone after twelve years and you’re asked several times that night why you don’t have a driving license, it tends not to leave a favourable impression on you.

Part of the problem was that I had little in the way of experience being social. I’d skipped traditional college, so I didn’t have years of experience getting shitfaced with peers, discussing how much we hated our professors. I’d skipped getting a Real Job™, so I didn’t have years of experience getting shitfaced with colleagues, discussing how much we hated our bosses. I had a thin skin for what would probably be de rigueur hazing (I still do). I would spend most parties with my newfound & newly reacquainted friends awkwardly sitting there for a couple of hours nursing a drink, before launching violently into some tirade about technology or design or movies, usually to stunned silence. I’d make jokes, but rarely connect. I was lousy at being social in real life.

I am, however, pretty damn good at design, and the definition I give for that has always been thus: Design is communication made more effective. So being the design-head that I am, I began to apply those skills to being social. This may sound like creepy pick-up artist territory, but it really is not. Mostly succeeding at being social IRL involves less talking, more listening, and always paying attention. I got good at it. Quickly. Not so good that I was everybody’s instant best friend, but good enough for an ex-hermit with no driving license.

By late 2012 I had over a dozen people I could, at any given time, meet in person if I chose to, in Dubai alone. And often, I did. I’d ask cabin crew friends for their roster so I’d know when they’d be in town the next month. I’d ask nine-to-fivers what they’d be doing on the weekend, and I’d squeeze myself in the parts where they weren’t occupied being social with other people. I’d grown to generally dislike parties, and drinking the night away, so socialising became more one-to-one. Coffees. Lunches. Dinners. Shopping. The gift & curse with being freelance is you don’t have a fixed schedule. All time is your time. And I was using a fair bit of it to meet people.

My work did suffer. Client work too, but mostly personal projects, which would routinely get pushed back because a friend who lived two hours away was just down the road right now and free, and I hadn’t seen them in a few weeks. On twitter I could keep in touch with dozens of people every day. On facebook I’d know what friends & family around the world were doing, what they were wearing, what they were eating for lunch. Frequently, that guy broadcasting lunch pictures would be me. The allure of meatspace, however, is strong, and I genuinely felt that keeping those connections going was the best possible way to allocate a part of my energies.

By early 2013, those energies were severely depleted, and between work projects going sour, personal projects never getting off the ground, and several other mundane yet absurd logistical things like figuring out where rent money would come from, I was getting irritable & angry in a way I’ve seldom been. Even twitter, my safe haven, my non-stop party, had turned into a feeding frenzy of people chewing through a single, horrible news event — the gang rape of a woman in New Delhi — and while talking about it endlessly in circles was important to them, for me it just wasn’t a good place anymore.

So in a rare example of dramatic behaviour, I said I was quitting twitter for a month. The excuse was work (it always is), but really I just didn’t enjoy being there at that time. I stuck to this promise, mostly, dropping in once a week to shout something at the ether or to check in on friends. This happened more on facebook, where I’d be in three conversations with people in the messaging area, arranging where and when to meet next.

This was the problem. I was always making plans.

There it was plain as day, undeniable, and in glowing digital type, stored on a server farm somewhere. I spent a few days churning through old emails, re-reading them, looking for — and finding — patterns. Here was a thread with one friend, where I ask to meet, then ask again two days later, then set a time the next day, then send a message that morning saying I’ll be there, only to hear that they’ve made other plans… and then I say, “Well, how about tomorrow?”

It was a pattern repeated over facebook, and text message, and email, and who knows how many phone calls & unrecorded instances. It was more or less the same with my entire circle of friends. There would be the odd one who’d call me as much or more than I’d call them (and I’d welcome their attention. Still do.), but usually it would be me going, “Hey, we haven’t met in AGES…” (two weeks, max)

It had to stop. But it had to stop in a way that would seem undramatic.

Drama is a commodity I can do with less of. For most it’s the default setting, but pragmatism has always been the party line in this small branch of the Bharadwaj family tree, and so it must stay. I couldn’t announce to my friends that I was in social rehab. That would be silly. I couldn’t sever all ties with them — they’re still my friends, and I’m not that variety of asshole. But I did need to stop initiating everything. I had to let friends come to me, for once, if they wanted to see me, and at a time and frequency of their choosing.

It’s now been six or seven months since then, and around a year since I was last very actively social. I have not seen one close friend since January. I haven’t seen another since June at least. One — the one who does call me often — I see every week or two, but less frequently than I used to. I stopped requesting rosters and making note of weekends and birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve been to one party, been out drinking twice (both in April) and in all cases I was invited, not the initiator. I turned thirty and was glad that nobody except close family even remembered. Last month I had to choose between a party and seeing a friend who was in town for a few days, and chose the latter. I’d love to say that I’ve been massively productive in that time, or have reached some kind of enlightened position on social life, but in the case of work it’s been Real Life, family, and chasing clients that has filled in the gaps.

I’ve also saved money. Pitiful amounts in the grand scheme of things, but all those $10 bar drinks and $5 coffees add up. My health has not been the greatest this year, and I’ve become what I can only describe as unhealthily chubby, but that’s due to Real Life stresses. I don’t even spend as much time on twitter and facebook as I once did. I went back after that month away and people were still irate & arguing in circles — over something else, and then the next thing — so maybe some of the glamour of it has worn off for me. I spend my days there trying to be as silly as possible. It’s the only sane response to the world, sometimes.

Do I miss my friends? That’s a hard question to answer. Technology means that at any given time they’re a login away. I see what they’ve been up to lately; I like their statuses and pictures, and comment on their links. In many ways they’re as much a part of my everyday life as they always were. Nor am I sitting at home waiting by the phone for one of them to call, to ask to meet in person. That was me overcompensating for a decade of being a hermit, of encountering an everyday task I was bad at — socialising — and putting in the effort to become great at.

I got good at being social. Now go the fuck away.

V