Resisting the impersonal

“A lot of people that I encounter, all across the country and even around the world, are craving authenticity, they want to be able to be open with other people, they want other people to be open with them, but it can feel scary to do so,” he said.

“US surgeon general warns of next public health priority: loneliness”, Ankita Rao for The Guardian, May 5th 2023

People may crave authenticity and openness, yet few seem to align their actions with that craving. The same people don’t hesitate to pay a service worker instead of asking a friend for help. They prefer transactions to relationships, and de-personalize interactions that used to be personal: teacher-student, doctor-patient, neighbor-to-neighbor. They cultivate networks instead of communities.

I don’t pretend to understand exactly how we came to this point, and I don’t think it’s useful to look for causes when all we can be relatively certain of is correlation. I think about what my response to the impersonal and transactional should be, and how I can teach and model alternatives for other people, particularly my children.

I was raised to be personal and relational. Both of my parents were that way, and had careers (psychotherapy, speech therapy) that encouraged them to be. I grew up in a community where many people had longstanding ties to my extended family. I was taught to think about life situations in terms of individuals and relationships, and not in terms of brands and transactions. How can I help others? How can they help me? That way of thinking has enriched my life immeasurably.

In 2023 being personal and relational often means going off script in what’s expected to be an impersonal and transactional encounter with another person, like a job interview or a tradesperson coming to your home. It means acknowledging someone as more than their job title or social media persona. It means bringing emotional intelligence when you could probably get by without it. It means having a dialog instead of merely exchanging information or reiterating a sales pitch. There’s vulnerability in that. At the same time, being personal does not mean oversharing, and being open to others does not mean letting yourself be exploited. It’s possible to keep private things private and still be genuine in how you relate to others.