Monday, October 01, 2007


False Familiarity

Last night my husband and I had a grand opportunity. We met several people from a chat forum my husband participates in. Because I don’t participate in this chat, other than to read over my husband’s shoulder periodically, or listen as he mentions bits of the conversation, I had no preconceived notions of what people would be like based upon their screen names or what they wrote.

Turns out my husband knew two of the posters, one whom he attended Boy Scout camp with as a kid; the other whose daughter lives in our neighborhood. Small world, as someone said last night.

“Red,” the gal who got this gathering together, lived in Minnesota at one time and now lives out-of-state. She wanted to return to Minnesota for a visit and, while here, meet some of the posters. She has had contact with some of the posters before and carefully picked who she wanted to meet, primarily concentrating on those with a liberal bent, but throwing in a few conservatives for good measure. The chat forum often revolves around political issues, so the differences in the political persuasions of posters are pretty apparent over time.

The key here is “over time.” Without physical contact, it is only by following a poster’s writing over time that allows the reader to make judgments about character. And we do make judgments, sometimes too quickly. When we are online with someone, we tend to think we know him/her. A false familiarity builds up. We may make a joke, thinking the person on the other end will know it’s a joke, but the person takes the joke as an insult instead, being unable to read our tone or posture.

Red gave us the perfect example of this phenomenon last night. She discussed a poster who portrays himself as the opposite of what he is in order to get a rise out of others. My husband was suspicious of his comments, thinking maybe the poster was doing this, but he wasn’t sure, so decided not to engage him.

Meeting chat posters last night brought humanity – a physical humanity – to those present. It’s not about words on a screen (sometimes very angry words); it’s about feeling the fullness of a person behind the words, which tempers the emotions.

One man, who was born in South Africa and conscripted into the South African military, where he served on border patrol, has an interesting take on immigration. He feels that it should happen in a slow and individual fashion, rather than en masse. He is now a U.S. citizen, so he understands immigration on a personal level. With insight into his history, those who read his chat posts on immigration will weigh his thoughts more carefully.

Like most people, I am apt to create fictions about others in my mind when I get a brief or one-sided view of them. (As a fiction writer, maybe I’m even more likely to do so.) That’s what made last night’s gathering so great. Reality can certainly be a disappointment, but, as I’ve often found, it can be way better than fiction. So it was last night. Cheers to the chatters!

For those of you who regularly comment on my blog, know that I’d eventually like to meet you in the flesh.

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