Cultivating strong relationships in the digital age

The social dilemma, currently on Netflix, is the latest in a string of researched documentaries or studies adding credence to going ‘back to basics’ when it comes to human connection in this digital age.

So many industry leaders, co-founders, vice presidents and ethical designers are adding to the numbers voicing concerns over addictions to technology. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, notably expressed personal concern about the platform helping create “tools that are starting to erode the social fabric of how society works”. It’s a telling sign that so many innovators or digital execs minimise their own offspring’s access to tools they have helped create.

The digital age is here to stay as we continue racing into the future. It’s the manner in which we choose to use the technology in our hands that helps maintain strong relationships in a hyperconnected, tech-addicted digital age. Following are four ways to do this.

1. Take off the masks

The first lesson may be learned powerfully from the words of a teenage girl during a seminar I delivered on human behaviour and human connection.

‘Oh, this explains so much! I get it. I was pretending to be really emo [emotional] to land the hot guy. Which I did! But then after a while it didn’t work because, you know, we’re just not that alike.’

Authenticity is a powerful way of inviting or adding value into our lives and the lives of others. Pretending for the sake of connection often fuels more heartache or disconnection. Authenticity allows for a healthy stickiness over neediness.

Our historical predecessors thousands of years ago might have been lucky to interact with 150 mainstay connections in a lifetime. These days people invest so much time in filtering highlights for highlights; seeking to gain a far greater number from a single social post in the duration of a coffee break. Yet the price is significant. A short-term dopamine fix of surface, shallow or even fake loveliness from a digital collection of every Tom, Dick or Harriet bundled into one happy bucket labelled ‘Friends’ often only serves to pull us away from the gems in this world.

2. The biggest dirty little secret

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, describes a common trait seen in the digital age – regardless of whether applied personally or professionally – as “the biggest dirty little secret in business”.

A lack of candour costs a business so much: trust, productivity, innovation, time, everything. The same is true for our personal relationships. They suffer when transparency is sabotaged or subterranean. If someone you truly value has upset you, tell them. Few people have developed their psychic ability to accurately or fully read minds!

The digital age seems to breed the antithesis of candour, with phenomena like ‘ghosting’ or a ‘cancel culture’ taking off. A conversation culture, rather than a cut-off one, is better for relationships and the social fabrics of community.

A conversation culture, rather than a cut-off one, is better for relationships and the social fabrics of community

3. Two common languages

We live in a world of 196 recognised countries and over 7,000 known languages. More than half the world’s population speak the top 10 of these. Yet there remain two common languages we all understand that transcend differences, divisions and geographical boundaries. What’s more, neither of these requires the utterance of words. And no, they are not the languages of SMS or emojis! How often do you ask friends to help you translate these?

Kindness and love are languages the deaf can hear, the blind can see and that can bring light to the darkest of spaces. In fact, Robert Waldinger, the current director of perhaps the world’s longest study of adult life and development, shares in his TED Talk (“What makes a good life”) that the secret to a happy life turns out, after all, to be feeling loved and supported.

4. The context of quality and quantity

The importance of human connection minus technology is rooted in scientific reasoning. British anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar stumbled upon a magic number while studying the behaviours of primate groups.

Applying the same modelling to our own primate group, the predictions about the size of social circles or relationships that people can realistically maintain turned out to be surprisingly accurate: 150.

This number has been prevalent throughout history and is still typical of modern-day social circles: from the average size of the populations of English villages circa the 16th century (160) to the number typical of modern-day social gatherings (wedding invitations, 148, from a study of 18,000 brides) or even the average number of Facebook friends (150–200).

Among all your connections, consider how many relationships are truly meaningful or present in your world? Perhaps take note of who your 150 are and invest more in them than in strangers.

Our humanity and quality time invested in relationships nourishes their longevity. Embrace and use technology as a great enabler and connector. Perhaps be less concerned about a rush for vanity metrics or popularity.

And don’t be so busy rummaging in the digital rocks and stones that you miss the real-life diamonds.

Mark Carter is an international keynote speaker, trainer and coach. He has over 20 years’ experience as a global learning and development professional.