Not personal enough

It took me a while to write to the bottom of that one, to break through the confusion and anger and get to some kind of understanding. I’m probably not going to post all of that, because now that I’m looking at it through the slightly-numbed lens of a good cry and a cat-cuddle, it’s a bit much for something triggered by a few words from two people.

It’d be good for me to share the summary, though.

For many people, a slightly-personalized version of my yearly update was a good reminder in a convenient format and a prompt to perhaps reflect on their own year and plan the next. Most people replied back with their own updates and plans, and I’m in the middle of many enjoyable conversations that branched off from there.

For some people, though, it wasn’t personalized enough. After lots of scribbling, writing, and a surprising anger at unrealistic expectations, I realized that my feelings about this can probably be traced to these things:

  • Sharing parts of your life with distant people is HARD. Great letter-writers like Jane Austen or Isaac Asimov might be able to handle it, but I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m tired of feeling guilty about this, particularly as I think these expectations are unrealistic.
  • I really don’t like the “this glass is half empty” attitude towards relating with people. It makes me uncomfortable and even somewhat angry. I know people don’t mean it that way, but it hurts enough for me to feel tempted to avoid it.
  • The generic part of the e-mail is like the generic part of small talk – it’s just there to start a conversation. It would be awkward to start a conversation with a friend you haven’t talked to in ages with a deeply personal secret, and it feels awkward to start an e-mail conversation with people I don’t share many experiences with using the same kind of tone and banter I’d have with people I interact with every day. I’d be happy to reply to people or chat on the phone/computer with them, but I’m not going to start e-mail like that.
  • I feel comfortable sharing a great many things on my blog. I feel comfortable sharing more everyday or tentative things in person, with people who share those experiences. The set of things I don’t feel comfortable blogging but I feel comfortable sharing with distant people is very small, because I’d rather talk about things in person with people who are sharing those experiences. If I needed to think through something, I am more likely to talk over it with my partner or bring it up over lunch or dinner with friends than I am likely to talk about it with my parents over video-chat or e-mail distant friends. I could probably sit down and write an e-mail about something, explaining all the background context, but it’s much easier for me to just talk to someone who knows all of that already, and getting people to that point is hard because it builds on all these everyday things.
  • I find it really difficult to start conversations. Reading other people’s Facebook feeds, tweets, blog posts, or similar lifestreams is great, because I can just think of my e-mail as responding to them. Posting things on my blog for some unknown audience is easy, because I’m just putting things out there in case. Starting from scratch is hard. So I’m too shy to start a conversation, but not too shy to post things just in case other people want to start them. Someday I may learn how to do this, but it’ll probably take me several decades to become truly comfortable with it.

The glass is at least half-full, and if we focus on that part, it’ll be much better than focusing on the empty part.

UPDATE: I figured out some more while cooking dinner! I realized that one way to get around my shyness is to keep track of which people prefer fully-personalized e-mail, and ask _them_ to write first so I can reply. ;)

  • Mel

    For what it’s worth, I loved your email, and I was impressed you took the time to personalize it even a little bit. I wonder what the response would have been if you had sent out a generic greeting to “everybody,” sans personalization? I’m willing to bet there would have been no backlash, and it’s interesting to think about why that might be the case.

    As a shy person who also really wants to meet people, I’ve found your “posting things just in case other people want to start conversations” to be an excellent excuse and activation-energy-barrier reducer that’s occasionally sufficient enough to get me to make a converation-starting gesture myself. So it does work.

    • I think it’s related to the way people react to computer graphics: if it’s obviously cartoony, it’s cute; if it’s super-realistic, it’s cool; if it’s almost realistic but not quite, it’s _really_ _creepy._

      Have mustered up the courage to say that I have a hard time starting conversations, but if they want super-personalized notes, I’d be happy to reply to one of theirs. <laugh> I think that’s fair, isn’t it?

      And I’m glad I posted this on my blog, instead of just e-mailing the people concerned. I might not have known that there are other shy people out there for whom this blog makes it a little easier to connect. Plus, you get to think about this interesting issue without having to write all the code and do all the personalization yourself, so you can do thought experiments… =)

  • Gee, I’m offended, I didn’t get the email. :-)

    Face it – interpersonal communication is hard, no matter what tools you use, and it’s SO easy to inadvertently offend people.

    On my trips to India, I’ve used my blog as a way to post “background information” – what I’m doing, places I’m visiting, etc. – and then used email as a “supplement”. Some of my email correspondents (especially family members…) were bothered that I expected them to read my blog for that background. Ah, well.

    • <laugh> I’ll add you to my list, then. Put me on yours! =)

  • After reading this I went ahead and read what I wrote back to you after receiving the wonderful email from you. I kept thinking “did I write something that might have offended Sacha?!” and after a good read back, I then thought to myself “maybe someone else said something else”.

    FWIW, I really do appreciate getting that email — even though I knew part of it was “generic”, I just tried imagining what effort you have put into personalizing parts of that email.

    Just keep it up and know that there are more people who really do appreciate the act. Looking at it in “glass half-full glasses” may help. ;-)

  • Ric Z.

    Also received you email – thanks for including me in your “list”. You will never please everyone (thoiugh I know you always try to do it), just make sure you please yourself first.

  • gary

    sacha, if anyone had ever read your task list; it would have been impossible for them to be offended. i loved your email and it was great of you to be able to email me and others! gary