Covid-19 put the brakes on our lives and changed the rules of social engagement practically overnight. Have some things changed forever, like how we worked and the way we shopped? Will it have any permanent effect on how we stay in touch with one another?
Even before the pandemic, people were expressing their desire for a less isolated daily existence. Then, ironically, here we are, using the same tools to stay connected that many blamed for separating us in the first place.
The pandemic provided a crash course on where technology fits in. Imagine how much worse things would have been without Zoom, Facebook, WhatsApp, and all the tools we had.
We’re all eager for lives to return to personal interaction, to hugs, smiles we can see, and being together in confined spaces. In movies, even robots like to be physically together. Soon we will be able to gather again more normally. What might be done to bring more warmth into how we exist in the world?
Takeaways from Another Culture
In Mexico, where I’ve lived part-time since 2014, friendships play out far differently than they do at home in the U.S. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating why and concluded it’s how people in each culture approach being together.
Mexico is a notoriously group culture, rather than an individual culture as we are up north. While customs are often hard to transfer from one culture to another, there are, however, what I call “actionable” elements, habits that I’ve begun to carry over into my interactions at home.
Mexicans still drop by unannounced. The first time it happened in Mexico I was horrified. Three Mexicans at my door, appearing like they’d been ripped out of the pages of Mexican Vogue magazine. I think I was wearing my ex-boyfriend’s gym shorts.
Over time though, these unannounced visits led to some of the best evenings I’ve spent in Mexico, transforming themselves into sightseeing drives and learning how to make pozole.
Actionable: Dropping by unannounced likely won’t make a come-back in the U.S. However, the idea of more spontaneity is due a revival.
By accepting a call or a visit and making myself available on terms other than my own, I hope to deliver a message that the caller is more important to me than whatever routine tasks at hand.
In my book, The Mexican Solution, I tell the story of my computer consultant coming over to fix my router. With Jesús there was another man, equally well dressed and the same age, whom I assumed was a trainee. I remarked how much he must be learning from Jesús.
“Oh no,” he laughed. “I’m not learning anything.” I sent him a quizzical look. “We’re friends. Our wives are friends. We haven’t seen each other in a while, so I’m just hanging out with him.”
Remember when you were young and hung out with friends in dorm rooms or messy apartments? As we get older, our time together seems informed more by the rigid schedule of an event ticket, a dinner reservation, or an entrance fee.
Friendships become defined by what we do together rather than by being together. Hanging out, on the other hand, is time together without pressure to entertain or be entertained.
Actionable: I likely won’t be able to convince my American friends to come over and hang out with me while I fold laundry like I can in Mexico. What I can do is offer to keep a friend company for a routine activity.
I’ve learned to ask, “Would you like some company? I have time.” It’s a subtle reminder that their company is enough. Time is the most valuable gift we can give.
Bringing Along the Adult Children
It’s not unusual for my friends in Mexico to visit and bring their adult children in tow. Even more astonishing is that their kids don’t seem to mind. For the first year, it felt awkward to me. None of my friends at home do this.
With time, I began to realize the benefit of having certain subjects off the table and others, like the latest horror movies or pop culture, jumping up to take their place. Conversations involving younger people give you a whole new perspective of the world.
Actionable: In the U.S. we tend to separate family time from friend time. We learn a lot about our friends when we watch how they interact with their kids.
It’s not always appropriate to bring an adult child along when we see our friends, but we can suggest to our friends that we’re interested in their children – the most important people in their lives – and welcome them on occasion in our plans.
The Greeting and the Sign-Off
In Mexican culture exists the amusing balm of the extended goodbye: the various exchanges before taking one’s leave. On the phone, one never says they have to “let you go.” They offer all kinds of blessings and sweet talk before hanging up.
Mexican greetings and partings are abundant with the words: mi amor, amiga, bendiciones, corazón, abrazos, besos, even te quiero.(If you ever plan on visiting Latin America, put these Spanish words on the top of your deck of vocabulary flashcards.)
Actionable: Like small verbal hugs, I’ve begun to incorporate occasional endearments into my conversations, even the simple hello, my dear friend,in greetings at home.
My best friend in the States always ends longer conversations on the note of how she’s enjoyed talking, concluding them on an up note. I’ve begun to try to do the same.
Curating Conversational Topics
I recently received an email from an American online magazine for people over 50 lobbying for my readership. They announced they’d be covering the following topics in the new year: Ageism in the workplace, the pandemic, end-of-life decision making, caregiving (and caregiving in the pandemic), glad tidings I’m sure my friends would love for me to share with them.
In Mexico, my conversations are devoid of American politics and a multitude of other topics in the news that made 2020 such a dreadful year. Conversations here are always less grave. This tendency made the year less grim for Mexicans even as they dealt with the pandemic much the same way we did.
Actionable: Of course, information such as in the previously mentioned newsletter can be useful, but we need to restrict our diets of such fare to essential reading and stop doomscrolling.
One of the things I appreciate about 60 & Me is the balance of the practical information we need to deal with difficult issues with the fun, inspirational, and humorous.
Purveyors of pleasure deserve at least as much of our attention as the conveyors of concern. Theirs are the works to seek out, the things that will help us keep our sanity as we travel the rest of way into the light.
Have you lived in a different country for a longer time? What have you learned about friendship when living abroad? What actionable steps can you implement in your life back home? Please share what you’ve tried!