‘Tis the season to be social, not a social networker

December 24, 2008, 8:44 PM UTC

Just when I think the Gen Y conversation’s gone stale, a new theme emerges that proves me wrong, and this year, it was a social one. But perhaps not the one you’d expect: It wasn’t social responsibility, or even social networking, but (our lack of) social connection, and by extension, aptitude. If it seems I’ve been harping on this a bit (witness “Making true connections in a Facebook world”), I have — because this might be the area where we have the most to learn, and the most to lose if we don’t learn it.

What better time to start those lessons, then, than right now, as many of us head home to family and holiday parties galore this December, situations that often traditionally elicit at least as much dread and drinking as goodwill? So this December, I vote we actually (gasp) talk to people, and (double–gasp) mean it. As New Year’s resolutions go, it’s a basic one, I know. But after all my cheerleading and translating for our cohort, I’ve also learned a few things about where we fall down. And making substantive connections, whether they’re on or off the web, is increasingly becoming one of those places, especially if what I’ve been hearing from you all is any indication.

Consider Hannah Seligson’s November New York Times story, “For Help Finding a Job, Friends in Low Places.” Hannah, a Gen Y author I met when I wrote about her book last year, told me I might be the “contrarian” voice in her piece, which explored Yers’ efforts to utilize their peer network — instead of, say, their parents’ friends — to find job opportunities. Hardly in a rush to read my curmudgeonly comments, I waited a while to read the story.

And then an odd thing happened: I started to get e-mails and calls from people (my own younger sister included) thanking me for being honest and realistic about what one Yer might have to offer another, especially over something like Facebook. “It’s very easy to just send out a friend request,” I’d told Hannah, “but when you are looking for jobs, you want to make sure your peer network is comprised of people who can speak to your qualities, not just vouch for you as a friend on Facebook.” It certainly wasn’t revolutionary, but it resonated, likely because — like me — many of you are finding yourselves drawing that new distinction between Facebook friends and real ones, too. And let’s just say Facebook friends don’t always make great references, mentors, or, well, friends.

So in the interest of having real relationships, let’s treat every connection we make from now on as sincerely as possible. And let’s keep the connections we already have from going generic. That friend you only see on IM? Drag him or her out to lunch. If you’re home this break, take the time to catch up with old friends in person, rather than updating them via Facebook status (or relying on that most formidable of networks, the Former PTA Moms Phone Tree).

Or if you run into someone you haven’t seen in a while on Facebook, take the time to write a quick note instead of sending a blank friend request. This makes you a person, instead of a profile your would-be friend has to poke around in till s/he remembers who you are and confirms that you aren’t insane. (And this goes double for people you don’t know, but would like to; they’ll be much more likely to respond to an “I love your work!” than nothing at all.)

Even when it comes to folks who’ve made themselves available as part of your university alumni network or company mentoring program, reach out to them first as an individual and second as an opportunity. And always do it with some humility and gratitude. After all, there’s a huge difference between an e-mail that says, “You’re in a field I love, and I’d really appreciate a bit of advice,” and one that says, “Here are the three jobs I’d like at your company, and my resume’s attached.” (Both of which I’ve gotten, by the way.)

The moral of the story: Use all the tools available to you, but use them to build relationships, not just networks, social or otherwise. A Boomer parent/executive stopped to chat with me recently about the seeming contradiction between Gen Yers’ affinity for technology and our need for interpersonal connection, and as we wrestled with it, he said something that stuck with me: “The technology is actually getting us back to where we used to be.” A few generations ago, one’s hometown alone offered a lifetime’s worth of deep connections. In today’s sprawling, mobile, hyperactive world, not so much. And while technology’s helping us to (re)create some of that community online, we’re still a long way from replicating the lasting bonds that used to form naturally in our neighborhoods and help shape us into the people we were supposed to become.

Good news is, those bonds still do exist in the real world. So, as a present to ourselves and everyone who’ll ever have to know us, let’s go get them back.