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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Reflection: Keeping in Touch

One writer reflects on the difficulties of maintaining digital communication while having a busy Dartmouth schedule.

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Just the phrase “catching up” is overwhelming. It implies that you’re behind. 

I like to believe I’m a good texter. Labeling someone a “good” or “bad” texter has become ubiquitous in our iMessage milieu — people who cultivate a reputation for being bad texters can often get away with three days to a week of radio silence. 

Being a good texter, however, requires several key qualities: excitement, expediency, organization and thoughtfulness, to name a few. I pride myself on ticking those first two boxes, but in maintaining my quick replies, I sometimes find myself ill-equipped.

Each morning, as soon as my alarm wakes me up with the melodious sound of duck noises, my arm shoots out and I cradle my iPhone to my body. Before I even throw off my covers, I’m catching up with all of last night’s communications: clicking through texts, scrolling through emails and opening Instagram messages. While I sleep, my phone accumulates our 21st-century versions of letters and postcards like a bottomless mailbox.

After reading through each message, I have to reply, which is a process in and of itself. Providing quality replies to each and every blue blob-shaped message at 8:30 a.m. sometimes feels like an insurmountable task. That’s overdramatic — but it feels challenging, at least. 

If I don’t reply within the first 10 minutes of receiving a text, the chances that I’ll reply at all seriously dwindle. Now, this is not true for all phone users. Plenty of people have dozens of texts waiting unopened for appropriately-timed replies. Personally, though, I often forget to message back without a little red notification beckoning me to open an “unread” text. 

Over the course of a busy Dartmouth term, the minutiae of texting etiquette snowball into an avalanche of unanswered messages. I find myself glancing at my screen on the walk from Collis to my 11 a.m. class, trying to squeeze meaning into my words while dodging pedestrians. On days when I can’t keep up with both communication and my classes, I feel like I’ve failed myself and my friends.

At Dartmouth, my social life and schedule seem to swallow any capacity I have to stay in contact with people outside Hanover. One of my close friends is currently living in Berlin, and despite trying to schedule weekly calls with her, we only text sporadically. It feels like either I have an exam, or she has a dinner, or I’m on a hike or she’s traveling. My mid-day is her evening, and my afternoons are inevitably swallowed up by the allure of a steady work session in the library. I texted her this Monday, and we were able to catch up — but there’s only so much you can put in a message. I felt like I was missing the full context of all that’s happening in her busy life abroad. Texting her put a smile on my face, but it just doesn’t live up to time spent together. 

But with the limited hours in a day, I often just can’t seem to block out a half-hour or hour to be still or go on a walk and call my friends and family. Even after quitting my sport and increasing my free time, I still ping-pong frantically between my room, One Wheelock, Foco and whatever adventure draws me in during a given day. It’s so easy for me to say yes to driving to the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Glover, Vt., or attending whichever a capella show is happening that evening, and these events take up time that could have been reserved for “catching up.” 

I find the same guilt in trying to communicate with my mom. I called her on my run last Wednesday — the only time we were both free — but it was far too windy for her to hear me. I felt so frustrated at the wind rushing through my AirPods, carrying my words away from her. I knew I’d be hurrying through work on Thursday and away on an adventure on Friday. Why couldn’t I find the time to be still and talk?

This fall, I was in London, about 3,000 miles and a six-hour time difference away from good old Hanover. Ironically, the distance incentivized me to keep in touch with friends. I FaceTimed, texted and sent photos and funny anecdotes. For the first time in my life, I felt a balance between my digital and in-person communication. 

The pace of Queen Mary University, where I studied abroad, did not feel like Dartmouth’s. I had a much smaller group of friends, and I was taking three courses over the span of four months, rather than ten weeks. I cooked for myself. Outings were planned ahead of time — if a friend and I were going to the National Portrait Gallery, yoga or even coffee, it would be in my calendar. Then, I’d have all the hours left over to communicate with the people who weren’t there.

By contrast, when I’m at Dartmouth, I view every free hour as an opportunity to reinvent myself in the context of whatever group chat message, email or event flier I receive. The physical distance and tendency to neglect anyone off campus allow me to fuel my addiction for activity.

It seems like it should be easy to communicate, considering that my phone is rarely further than five feet away from my body — but it’s more difficult than it seems. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to my keeping-in-touch problem, but perhaps one of my favorite quotes can shed some light: “Wherever you go, there you are.” I’m trying to appreciate the moments I’m in when I’m in them, which means leaving behind the guilt I feel when I don’t have the time to call or text, and making time for it when I can. 

It’s a deceptively simple solution, though, because the time in my day trickles away with each toll of the Baker-Berry Library bells. But by using my time with attention and care, I hope that keeping in touch will feel less like keeping up.