Reader question #59: Keeping in touch.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve got less of a current problem question and more of a “how do I prevent a problem” question. Recently I was accepted into the graduate school I really wanted to go to. However, it’s halfway across the country and a more than twelve hour drive away from all my friends and family. I’ve never really been good at keeping in touch with people. Instant messenger and Facebook helps, but I still seem to fall out of contact with people really quickly if I can’t call them up and hang out every once in a while. It won’t exactly be feasible to drive / fly back home except for holidays. A couple of professors also want me to keep in touch, which I’m not sure how to do except email every so often with a “So my thesis paper is being a thesis paper how are you.” Do you have any tips on how to keep long-distance contacts?

-Social Clueless

Hello, Social Clueless, sorry it’s taken me so long to get to this question.

I think Facebook is going to be very helpful to you.  Through Facebook, I can be connected to my high school geometry teacher, people I went to high school with, my birth mother, my cousins, my former students, work colleagues, and friends in a light, superficial way but in a way that also actually makes me feel quite happy. I’m not immersed completely in the details of their lives, nor they in mine, but we have enough there that should we get the chance to see each other in person it feels like we could pick up a meatier conversation right where we left off.  Facebook isn’t going to deliver you with deep, meaningful connections with absent people or substitute for proximity and regular hanging out, but it’s going to keep those lines of communication open.

Your former teachers DO want to hear from you how things are going, but relax – they’re not expecting weekly reports on graduate school (they are much too busy to read those. DO NOT SEND).  Email them when you get settled and classes start, aka “Hi! I am settled and starting classes, here’s what we’re reading.”  Then a few times a year, when and if you read something that might be interesting or relevant to the work they do, or if you have a question they can answer about the work you’re doing, pass it onto them with a little note about how things are.  And take a cue from them.  If these emails turn into conversations with a natural flow, keep up with them.  Congratulations – you’ve made a friend/future colleague.  If you don’t hear back from them, your obligation to follow up seriously dwindles.  I don’t know what the opposite of “congratulations” is, but what you have here is a person who likes you and who wants you to do well but is too busy to really keep up with you.  That is ok!  Don’t take it personally. I love my students and hearing about their success sends me over the moon, but after 5 years of teaching there are too many of them for me to stay deeply invested in every single person.  Your profs are the same.

As far as deeper, face-to-face connections, you can solve some of this with planning/scheduling.  As in:

  • Figure out when you are going home for the holidays.  Plan a night to catch up with people now, put it in your calendar, and about a month before you head home publicize it/invite people to it. Park yourself at a bar or coffee house for “visiting hours,” or ask family/friends to have an open house.  Schedule one-on-one lunch/breakfast/coffee with people as everyone has time.
  • Put this on your calendar:  Once a month, call someone in your friend group and your family for a nice long phone chat.  Put it in your calendar to remind yourself to do it.  You’re going to be so busy with grad school that you will be happy that you scheduled this in advance.
  • Postcards are your friend!  People like postal mail that that is not bills!  Send postcards.

Your relationships will change when you move away.  People move on.  They create new memories without you. And it often falls to the person who has left to keep communications open – your friends at home will still all have each other, and while they will miss you (Confidential to Clare, Stacy, and Virginia: WE MISS YOU), they also change and grow while you are off changing and growing.   I think it will help if you build that expectation in right from the beginning:  These relationships will ebb and flow. Your goal isn’t to keep them exactly the same, it’s to leave the door open and the light on so that you can step back into them.  If you feel lonely and like everyone is ignoring you and you can see on Facebook all the fun they are having without you and wondering if they ever really liked you, pick up the phone.

Congratulations on graduate school.  It’s going to be really absorbing and provide you with a brand new crop of colleagues/friends/frenemies/enemies to throw yourself into, and it’s going to go by really fast.

Commenters, what are your experiences with moving away and staying in touch?

8 thoughts on “Reader question #59: Keeping in touch.

  1. I’d also say, as you prepare to move and in the first couple of months after, pay a lot of attention to how the people you value most want to keep in touch. I have friends who want to do everything over IM always, friends who want to call me every now and again, and friends who I may not talk to for months but are the very first people to contact me to make sure we hang out over the next holiday weekend. If you assume you’ll be able to keep in touch with everyone on Gchat just because that’s what you like to do, you may miss some people.

    That said, it is a good idea to make sure you show up as online whenever you’re working on something that doesn’t require too much concentration. When I started grad school, I got out of that habit because I had something specific I wanted to do with my downtime, or friends who kept different hours than me were always wanting to talk right when I needed to go. Then when I was really stressed out and could have used a friend, it seemed too overwhelming to contact them– what if they think I’m only keeping in touch when I need something? I mean, it was kind of true. And it seemed like it would be too hard to fill them in on everything. Early and often would definitely have been the way to go, at least for me.

    1. Yup, definitely. I live overseas and have spent YEARS trying to get into the groove you describe, of just being available for people. 9 hour time difference does not help. Listen to this person, LW!

  2. It’s important at the outset to realize that relationships will change. What you have with your friends will change.. it can still be good; you can still be close to all your friends from high school, but you have to accept that they will move on, just as you move on. Use FB to still be a part of a small part of their daily lives and then skype them once a week or once a month. If they’re really your friends, you’ll develop a stronger relationship that will last through the ages.

  3. i can tell you what i’d WISHED i’d done. [other than just never contact people again, which is what i DID do]

    i wish i’d payed attention, and made a conscious decision about who i was going to stay in contact with, and DONE IT. there have been several people who i’ve missed – but i moved and didn’t look back, more than once.

    make a list of those most important to you. and then follow the Captain’s advice – it’s good advice. and don’t forget! even if they make new memories without you [and you without them] you’re still friends, and can make more memories later. The Captain is smart, and right. it may be that you need to call MORE often, but never, ever call less often .

  4. Captain,

    Thank you (and the other commenters!) so much! I’m definitely going to work on this, especially planning out times to chat and meet up with people. I LOVE the postcards idea: when I went on vacation a few years back those were everyones’ favorite souvenirs! Thank you especially for the part about how relationships change. It’s something I rationally know, but I feel like I needed to hear it from someone else, if that makes sense.


  5. Postcards, fer sure. Before one big move I purchase a bunch of pretty art postcards, labeled them with the addresses of the people I most wanted to remain in touch with, and put stamps on them. I was broke when I got to my new city, and as I stared down another bowl of rice & beans I would think of the money I’d already spent on stamps and the fear of wasting that twenty cents motivated me to actually write & send the cards!

  6. Captain,

    I just discovered your scrumtrulescent site, and have been obsessively reading these columns. This is quite an aside from the real meat of this particular entry, but I think the opposite of “congratulations” is “condolences.”

    Thank you for the inspiring reading material!

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