Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

Sometimes, I don’t know how to talk to my friends.

Some of those who know me would counter that statement with the astute observation that to have that problem, I would first need to make some friends, but that’s fodder for a different column.

Back to my point. I get tongue-tied sometimes.

It’s not something that’s new. But something that I’ve noticed a lot more now. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

It’s almost as if the circuit breaker has flipped a switch, and we suddenly don’t know how to talk to someone else in person any more. For all our Zoom meetings and Hangout chats and Teams conferences, we seem to have lost the ability to relate to someone else outside of a small webcam window.

Perhaps it’s just me, or perhaps it’s not. Like it or not, how we react to people who aren’t in our immediate family circle has changed. If you don’t have this problem, then congratulations, dear friend, the rest of this piece wouldn’t really make sense to you.

For the rest of us, I’ve got a question… how do you handle it?

Online smiles, offline sighs

Talking to someone in person gives us visual cues to a conversation. So much of talking to a person is about body language and aural cues. There is an entire unspoken dialogue when you meet someone face to face. The slump of his shoulders, or a bounce in her step; a lilt in her voice or a grumble in his tone.

How do you try to puzzle it out through a tiny window and tinny audio?

Let me tell you how I do it.

I don’t.

Now, in some of my online meetings, I plaster on a big smile and a cheery voice, on top of the collared shirt I wear over my home shorts.

I grin and I nod and I participate and I contribute. Then when the meeting ends and the video light goes off, I heave a sigh of relief and glance at my watch. Two hours to go before the next meeting. And the cycle repeats. I’m working and I’m working and things do get done, but I’m missing out on that basic human need for interaction.

When does FaceTime really mean face time?

Living in our winter of discontent

Everyone carries their own burdens in our Covid world. It may be the worries of a harried worker or the fears of a tireless frontliner. A business owner may be stressing over the red in his ledger or a cabby may be panicking over the emptiness of his back seat. And above it all, the spectre of retrenchment looms.

But even if we don’t fall into any of these categories (and I’m blessed with caring colleagues and a sense of purpose in a stable job), we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that low-key background hum of discontent as we work from home or study online.

“So many of us are gliding along like swans, so graceful on the surface, but paddling furiously beneath the water.”

This is the reality of the “new normal”, I’m told. “Get used to it”, I’m advised. Okay, noted. With thanks. But how does those statements help me?

And if you’re anything like me, how does that help you?

So many of us are gliding along like swans, so graceful on the surface, but paddling furiously beneath the water. Like a musician friend of mine who remarked that thanks to Covid and the restrictions that come with it, there is an entire cohort of young artists who are at a loss over what to do next in their chosen profession.

Dare to push the boundaries of friendship

We should talk about our lives. And properly. Don’t just scratch the surface with a superficial “hi and bye”. How many times have you spoken to a friend whom you suspect is hurting – emotionally or economically – and he fobs you off with an “I’m okay, I’m okay!”, or an “aiyah, like that lah, can’t do much about it, just endure lor”. We should dare to push a little more, not out of a perverse need to satisfy our curiosity, but out of a genuine concern for a friend.

True friends pay attention, not lip service.

mental wellness 101, have a good friend to listen
Image by: Shutterstock / naka-stockphoto

We should also know when to talk, and sometimes simply to listen. To offer a solution or just a shoulder to lean on. But we are gradually losing that skill as we peer at the world through the monitor screen or the smartphone.

I’m not knocking virtual interactions. Given a choice between an online chat or none at all, my vote is always for the former. There is a lot of potential for technology to be a conduit for empathy. And there are many stories of how a comforting voice over the phone or a concerned face in a virtual chatroom have proved to be the difference between life and death.

My point is that it shouldn’t replace what we’ve been doing all this time – all those non-verbal actions we do to let people know that we are okay. Of course, we need to consider safe distancing norms now. Replace that handshake at work with a namaste; that fistbump at the gym with an elbow or ankle tap; that arm around your friend with a grin that travels past your mask to your eyes. Yes, let’s adapt to the new normal, but let’s not retreat from it.

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Looking forward to our glorious summer

Which is why I’m glad that the Government is making plans for us to move into Phase 3. Tomorrow (Sept 28), more people are going back to work in their offices, albeit with restrictions.

I’m also glad for events like the National Council of Social Service’ Beyond The Label virtual fest this weekend (Sept 26 and 27), which seeks to remove the stigma from talking about mental wellness.

This year’s BTL campaign focuses on Singaporeans who may be facing socio-economic uncertainties and are under mental distress. NCSS wants to encourage people to be open to seeking and accepting help early, and to develop mental fortitude to face life’s stressors and challenges.

It has also launched a short film that will resonate with many Singaporeans going through tough times now.

The fest culminates with a virtual concert tonight (Sept 27) at 8 pm, with performances from local artists like Stephanie Sun, Kit Chan, Tosh Zhang and Taufik Batisah as well as the musicians from the 3am Music Collective.

These performers aren’t just playing to entertain. They know what it is to struggle with mental health conditions. And they are talking about it openly to signal to all of us that hey, it’s okay not to be okay. So let’s talk about it.

I want to be able to look past the mask (both real and virtual) on a friend’s face and ask, “hey bro, I know you say you are okay, but are you really okay?”

That’s when the real conversation starts.

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