Virtually Close While Physically Distant

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Virtually Close While Physically Distant

I was enjoying relaxing and watching an IPL (Indian Premier League) cricket match with an Indian couple with whom I was staying on a recent visit to India. There was a knock on the door, and their daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter walked in. They hadn’t called or messaged in advance; they were in the area and stopped by. They stayed for about 45 minutes and engaged in conversation about a variety of topics. 

About 30 minutes after they left, there was another knock on the door, and a sister-in-law walked in. She hadn’t called or messaged; she was in the area doing some shopping. She stayed for close to an hour engaging in casual conversation.

When visiting Indian friends in their homes over the past 4-5 years, I often found them looking at the screens of their mobile phones, carrying on conversations with multiple Whatsapp groups of family and friends. As we know, the definition of family for Indians extends beyond father, mother, and siblings. Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, etc. are usually as close relationally as father, mother, and siblings, so a great deal of communication is expected. 

If spontaneous casual in-person visits are not possible, video calls are a substitute. This is especially true of Indian families who are increasingly spreading all over the world. As great physical distances have become a reality, spontaneous casual video calls have become the normal and expected way to stay close relationally. It is similar to living under the same roof, but in a virtual sense. About ten years ago most video communication happened on laptop computers using Skype. Now most use either Facetime or WhatsApp. 

Why Video Calls?

During the implementation of stay-at-home restrictions in much of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have realized the value of video calls as a substitute for face-to-face interaction. Not being able to have face-to-face visits with my Indian friends who live close to me, I have begun to use WhatsApp video extensively for the first time and am experiencing the benefits of this type of communication. Compared to a voice call or text message, video communication allows for the viewing of smiles and other emotions and the viewing of expressions of care and concern.

A couple Saturdays ago, I picked up my phone and dialed the number on WhatsApp of a former Indian student who had graduated about seven years ago and moved to another state. It had been over two years since we communicated by messaging. Sure enough, he answered my call and I was with him in the living room of his house. It was wonderful to see each other face-to-face and catch up. Not only that, I was able to see and talk with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his father-in-law. Then my friend carried his phone into another room and introduced me to his 92-year-old grandmother. Being able to speak with her and the others in the Gujarati language made the communication very warm and meaningful. It was spontaneous and served to strengthen our friendship.

Reasons and Agendas

In our culture, there usually needs to be a reason to meet with or call someone. Or it should be planned at least a week in advance. Most meetings, even informal meetings, have an agenda. 

One of the best things I have learned from my Indian friends is the value of not having a reason to meet in person or by video and the freedom from having an agenda. 

At first I was not comfortable visiting or calling Indian friends for no reason. After a while, I realized it was a bit like working for a company that has regular meetings within a work group so team members can “check in” with one another and see what the recent developments are. As I communicate with Indian friends, I am able to find out what is happening in their lives, and vice-versa. I feel very blessed when I find out major (or minor) news about them or their family during the calls. 

As face-to-face meetings have not been allowed for the past six weeks, I have enjoyed initiating video meetings with Indian friends all over the U.S. as well as in India. 

The main drawback to not meeting face-to-face is the lack of food. I need to admit that sometimes I do have an agenda when I visit Indian friends. Food! 

Masks

I am worried about face-to-face meetings in the future if masks are required after the physical distancing restrictions are lifted. It is because facial expressions will be hidden. My smile cannot be seen if I am wearing a mask. Expressions of concern and care are hidden behind a mask. I desire to live according to the traits of the Fruit of the Holy Spirit, but how can the facial expressions of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) be communicated behind a mask? I am thinking that I will be more inclined to connect with Indian friends using video in the future, even if they are local if the mask requirement remains in effect. An Indian woman told me yesterday, however, that a benefit of wearing masks is that she doesn’t have to wear lipstick!

The benefits of video communication as opposed to messages or voice calls. It reminds me of the development of emojis in Japan. Emoji combines two Japanese words, e for picture and moji for character, so it means picture-character. Emojis were developed in the 1990’s because using text for communication often is not helpful in communicating emotion. Japanese letters and emails have a tradition of being long, full of honorifics and not personal. Japanese mobile phone users began to send picture images to others as a way to communicate emotion. In the same way, I think video calls are much better for communicating emotion.

The Future of Virtual Closeness

For families and friends desiring virtual closeness when physical distancing is necessary due to living in different locales or due to a global pandemic, it makes sense to communicate and send messages by video. I am very thankful for what I have learned from my Indian friends and am beginning to use Marco Polo and other video communication instead of voice calls or messaging with text. For example, I installed WhatsApp on my 83-year-old mother-in-law’s mobile phone last week, then initiated a video call to her phone this afternoon so that my father-in-law could see us on his birthday. He could see and talk with each of his grandkids, see and hear one of his grand daughters play “Happy Birthday” on the piano and hear us sing. And he could see and talk with each of us one-on-one. It was especially meaningful because he has some memory challenges, so a voice call would have been more challenging. Seeing our faces and our smilies and our expressions of love made a huge difference.

My Indian friends are beginning to communicate with their friends as a group by using Instagram stories and SnapChat, but it is not as personal as one-on-one communication. There is a new video messaging app called Marco Polo that has seen an increase in new users of more than 1,000% since the COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions became world-wide. Marco Polo serves as a “video walkie-talkie” as it sends video messages back and forth between individuals or to a group of people. Unlike Zoom or Hangouts, the videos do not have to be viewed live. The recipient can wait and view it later. Just like the experience of dropping by an Indian home spontaneously and without an agenda, there is great value in sending video messages spontaneously to check in with a family member or a friend or a group of family members or friends.

No one knows for sure when COVID-19 will cease to be disruptive, but we are learning different ways of doing life as we are at home. I am thankful for the new understandings about how to communicate effectively that I now have.