Updated: Apr 17
It's been another very long day at work. You had that breakfast meeting with the visiting Minister, didn't you? It took a lot of work to organise and manage that one. It's now well after 9pm and you're exhausted. You think of the day you've had in the office. What did the Ambassador really think about your comments you voiced in that meeting this afternoon? It seemed like she liked them, she even said so. But - now that you're thinking about it - she must have just been being polite because you saw the Ambassador and the Deputy exchanging looks just after you finished speaking. What was that about??
You're too tired to eat, let alone make something. You open the fridge. The only thing that's there is cheese, oh, and a bottle of wine. You settle for the tired diplomat's diet of cheese, wine, the couch and social media. Again.
You kick your shoes off along the way to the couch. Your habit of leaving the shoes around make you think of your mother and how leaving your shoes around the house would drive her crazy. You think of the people back home. You berate yourself for not talking to anyone for weeks. But you've been so busy and they are busy too. Besides, you know what's happening in their lives; you're all friends on social media. You collapse into the cushions with a middle-aged groan, click on the TV and start scrolling through your various social media feeds.
You may or may not have a family with you. They may or may not be home. It doesn't matter. You're now in your own little world. Time is punctuated by sips from your glass and your thumb scrolling. You hit 'like'. Your thumb scrolls some more. You make a pithy comment. Scroll. Hit 'angry' face when something upsets you or something bad has happened to a friend. More scrolling. Sip. Repeat.
At this point, the sensible thing to do is to close the social media app, open a chat app and call someone. You don't, because you don't want to disturb anyone. Besides, who calls anyone anymore? You press on.
After a while, you realise that it's well past your bedtime. You still haven't eaten anything more substantial than cheese and you've had more than a few drinks. You're too tired to go to bed, but as you summon the energy to get off the couch, you sigh and berate yourself that you should have left work earlier and gone to bed earlier.
Then it hits you: you've only talked to people about work today. No one really asked you how you were. And you didn't ask anyone, either. But who has time for anything longer than a hurried corridor conversation as we race between meetings, let alone a deep and meaningful chat?
Any of this sound familiar? Does this sound like a typical day? We all work hard, try to be all things to everyone, but this is to our own detriment. When we are so busy, all we want to do at the end of the day is to relax, watch TV and check our social media feeds to see what's going on in the world. It's our way of connecting with friends and family all over the world.
We both know this isn't a good habit, but here we are.
Turning to social media as a distraction (like when feeling lonely or have had another bad day) is like being thirsty while in a life raft and reaching overboard and drinking salt water. Sure, it may stop the feeling of disconnection, loneliness or isolation in the immediate term, but - like drinking salt water - it can do you more harm than good.
This thought occurred to me when I was researching the effect of loneliness for the chapters on loneliness and connection in my forthcoming book.
During this research, I came across an episode of the 'On Point' radio program from National Public Radio in the United States. What impressed me most were the words of Dr Vivek Murthy - the United States Surgeon-General in President Obama's administration.
Dr Murthy said that increasing the use of social media actually creates further disconnection from those around us. We lose ourselves in the various rabbit holes of reading or watching the news, scrolling through photos of our friends' holidays in exotic locations, catching up on sports scores, or watching animals and children being cute. We can end up comparing ourselves as we are at that moment - sitting on the couch, watching TV, drinking and absentmindedly scrolling through our social media feeds on our phone - with all its curated images of friends and people we follow living the lives they are projecting into the world.
As a mid-career diplomat, you've likely had a few overseas postings and social media is simply the easiest way to know what's happening in the lives of the many people you know all over the world. It's just easier to check social media and be done. Easier in the short term, but remember the drinking salt water analogy?
So what is a mid-career diplomat to do?
1. Meaningfully interact with other humans
My intellectual crush, Dr Brené Brown, frequently writes that all humans are hardwired for human connection. We all need to know that we are loved and belong.
This includes mid-career diplomats.
Using social media can feel like we are interacting with others, but we need much more than what we passively absorb through our screens. We need to meaningfully interact with other people. We need to go beneath the surface-level pleasantries that characterise many interactions on the diplomatic circuit and really communicate.
You know the feeling you get when you are having one of those amazing conversations with someone? Time flies. There's an energising meeting of minds. That's what I mean by meaningful and that's what we are aiming for.
What about those people who are routinely in our days, but we don't engage? Do you know the name of the people who make your coffee? Do you ever say hello to the person who catches the same bus as you?
2. Use social media as a tool for connection, not connection in itself.
This is simple to say, but hard to do.
But think of this, for every friend you have on Facebook, you can call them by voice or video call for free using Facebook Messenger. You can make video calls through Instagram. You can do the same through WhatsApp and dozens and dozens of other apps. Skype is still around, too.
You probably have one or more of these apps on your phone already. The functions to actively and meaningfully connect are already there.
3. Know that there are always people who want to hear from you.
I was speaking about this topic with a friend recently. They noted that no one calls anymore. All communication is via text. We just don't want to put people out, do we? We think that it's less intrusive to text than it is to speak on the phone or in person. We don't want to inconvenience anyone, so we stick to texting.
We don't talk because we don't want to interrupt someone's day with our prattle. Or we tell ourselves that it would be indulgent and selfish to call them because it's been too long between contact. This is dangerous for a range of reasons; but for this discussion it compounds feelings of isolation.
So, let's think about this a different way: how would you feel if a good friend that you had not heard from for years called you and said that they needed your advice? Of course you'd be happy to give them advice and listen with empathy.
Why is it different when you need help or advice?
If you're concerned that you'll be interrupting someone if you call unannounced, how about use texts to make a time to chat? Or send a voice memo? Sure, it's not as spontaneous, but everyone is prepared.
This week, rather than mindlessly scrolling through your social media feeds, I challenge you to do two things:
1. Arrange a time and then call someone with whom you haven't spoken for a long time.
I like to use the video chat option and - depending on the time of day - share a caffeinated beverage with them while we talk. I find this a terrific way to connect as we share a moment to pause, refresh and really talk.
Oh, and we all have that one friend who can never work out how to use the video chat function on any app. You may wish to do a regular voice call so you don't spend an hour looking up their nose or in their ear as they struggle to hear you.
2. Rather than whipping your phone out of your pocket and checking social media or email while you wait for your coffee, say hi to the barista. Even if you can't speak more than a few words in a common language, I'm sure that you can still manage a smile and say 'Good morning!'.
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PS - Trust me, the irony of sharing this blog on social media is not lost on me either!
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.