Much to my family’s dismay, I’ve lived about as far away as it is possible to live from them for almost 4 years. Before that, I lived in another city for 2 years, and spent 1 year on exchange. So that’s about 7 years away from home — my hometown, that is — trying to make the distance work. My hometown also happens to be Sydney, Australia — a city in a time zone that isn’t particularly close or convenient to my current home, London.
In the wake of Thanksgiving last week, and while I am not American, I have been thinking about just how important it is to have and create opportunities to catch up, to check in, to offer thanks or congratulations, or just demonstrate interest and desire to know those who are important to us, even if they happen to be far away.
While I’ve placed this huge physical gap between myself and my point of origin, I still value the relationships I have there. I still want to connect and share with my family and friends, and I have learned a lot in these past 7 years about how to manage this. Here are just a few suggestions for surviving a big gap between you and your loved ones:
Make your expectations known; understand the expectations of others
If I drop off the face of the earth for a month, my mother will have something to say about it. And rightly so; we each have expectations of more regular contact than that. When I lived in Melbourne, my mother and I talked almost every day — we were in the same timezone, same country, even though we were in different cities. This made things easier than they currently are, where 9 to 11 hours of difference (depending on time of year), doesn’t make scheduling quite so straightforward. So, we have agreed on how much contact we need to have. It tends to be a solid conversation once a week, though can also include more short catch ups and the occasional longer Skype session.
With friends, on the other hand, expectations vary a lot. I have friends who I don’t see or speak to for years, and that is fine — when I show up in town, they always want to catch up and grab a meal. However, this doesn’t apply universally. If you’re about to move cities or countries, it is worthwhile to merely ask the question: what do you want our relationship to look like when I go? How often would you hope to hear from me? And, of course, assert your expectations as well. Knowing what the baseline is will help get the ball rolling.
Explore different media; find what works
Some people are messenger people. Others are Twitter people. Some only want to talk on the phone, or via Whatsapp messages. They could be by voice or by text. The glorious thing about modern life is that we have a variety of options. Each of the people I keep in touch with prefers something different, and I am now aware of what those differences are. But my preferences also have to be taken into account; I have made those preferences known. And it is as simple as saying, “Hey, do you mind if we use Whatsapp voice messages? I want to hear your voice, but I can’t schedule a call right now.” This has worked beautifully with a particular close friend of mine; she and I now seamlessly share texts, voice messages and images throughout our week. It works for us.
Ultimately, honesty is the best policy. Check in with your own feelings of whether keeping up with people is working for you or not, and check in with the other person, too.
Get savvy with helpful technology; offer your expertise
I installed Whatsapp on my mother’s phone. This is because calling Australia with a conventional phone call is going to add up pretty quickly. I have guided my parents through Skype calls as well. Making sure we all know how to use the technology on hand is vital, and it does require you to have a little patience and understanding if someone else is just coming to terms with a new medium. Getting annoyed at your elders, or trying to convince a friend who hates selfies to use Snapchat, just isn’t going to be appropriate. If you know how things work, find ways to non-judgmentally and non-patronisingly teach your loved one how to use them (and this might mean waiting until you see each other in person to give the introduction!). Adopt an attitude of flexibility, encouragement and forgiveness.
Have a flexible attitude; problem solve
One of the common failings of contact with those who are based far away is that you are still trying to live a life wherever you’re newly based, and this does mean that unexpected things crop up. However, if you’re the kind of person who says, “We’ll talk another time” but never actively schedules that other time, your friend or loved one may start to think you don’t really care about the relationship any more, or that catching up is an inconvenience to you. Talking can become more sporadic, or cease altogether. It’s fine to miss a Skype chat if something happens, but be the one to actively ensure that another time is arranged. Or another method is employed. Offer to send a detailed email, for instance, and arrange a proper call in due time. But keep things specific, honest and make sure you are holding up your end.
And if it’s the other person, maybe just ask: “Hey, you’ve cancelled a few times. Would it be better if we don’t speak as often, or should we try something else?” Because maybe a 2 hour Skype chat once a week is a bit tough for your friend or loved one — in which case, flexibility is the key.
Personally, I would love it if people would send me proper old fashioned letters. However, they are a bit more time consuming to create and to send; it’s obviously quicker and easier to text. I love the idea of slowing things down in this way, but I’m well aware that most people will not want to exchange letters with me. And that is okay. I have adapted my expectations, and I am flexible. I won’t take up Snapchat any year soon, but I am happy to use Instagram. We make choices about how we interact online and they all have consequences for how often and how deep the catch up ends up being. I don’t expect that I will really understand a friend’s life from their Instagram feed, which is why I prefer voice and text messages sent directly. But it can provide a good way to start up the conversation again, if things start to fall away.
Have a catch up scheduled, even in the distant future — it is the light at the end of the tunnel
Distance is hard on any relationship, and it helps to know that eventually you will be reunited. Depending on the distance, this might be feasible fairly often. In my case, it’s a once every 2 years occurrence — I can’t take enough time off of work and I can’t afford the ticket any more often than that, given it is a 24+ hour journey with a significant time difference. This really makes me sad, and I do wish I had a more flexible way to arrange my work so that I could see my family and hold them more often. And that goes in both directions.
I will never, for instance, receive a visit from my grandmother who is phobic of flying. It’s a lot to expect. So it does make it tough for me to arrange that ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ — however, even in the distant future, it is a comfort. My parents are finally visiting London next June. That alone is exciting, even if it’s a while off yet. Knowing that you will try to reunite, even after a long time, will help keep a relationship alive and thriving.
It’s super hard to negotiate a social life, even in one city. And across locations, the challenge only increases. But if you’re committed to the people you care about, there are ways. Start the conversation early. Know what they need, and figure out what you need from the relationship.