Does being social online come at the cost of real-life interaction?
One of the few things many foreigners know about China is that Facebook is not available here. Then they tend to ask the next question: How do Chinese survive without social media? They are often shocked to learn that, despite online Western staples being unavailable in China, social media not only flourishes here, but it’s also a key part of the majority of Chinese people’s lives.
A recent report by the Internet Society of China and the China Internet Network Information Center showed that China had 772 million netizens by the end of last year, 80 percent of whom spend at least an hour online every day. The top three apps of choice? They’re all social media apps, with WeChat, of course, taking the crown as the most popular.
But we all know many people spend much more than an hour a day online, and that shows in the figures. The average amount of time a Chinese netizen whittles away each week on the net: 27 hours.
For me, WeChat takes up a huge part of my life, not only in my spare time, but also at work.
Our office, despite being that of a daily newspaper, is eerily quiet — nothing like you might have seen on TV. People tend to prefer to remain embraced in their computers and send WeChat messages online whenever communication is needed. I’m just as guilty and have found that using WeChat to ask simple questions of workmates is much quicker and more efficient than going over in person to their desk. Niceties take time, you know.
That attitude has extended to my personal life, to some extent, where I’ve found myself lately becoming less and less sociable in real life.
In fact, just a few days ago I remembered to message a friend for that few-weekly WeChat catch-up, just to show I’m still alive and breathing. An automated message instantly bounced back. He had deleted me!
I sent a friend request, which was a bit strange, and asked what was up. It turns out online socializing isn’t enough for everyone, and I had turned down dinner or coffee or movies thrice too many times. “I just figured you weren’t interested in being friends anymore,” he said.
That was a bit of a wake-up call. Despite online socializing playing a huge part in our lives, regardless of where we’re from, it’s not always enough to keep a real friendship alive. No matter how much our tired, over-worked bodies wish it was.
But it is tough, especially since Shanghai is so big, and friends often live far and wide. “Catching up” can be an arduous affair at the best of times, taking up three or fours hours at the very least.
One of my best friends taught me an important lesson in this regard recently. “Be careful about turning people down too many times when they invite you out,” he told me in an older-brotherly tone (that’s why I call him gege). “One too many rejections and they won’t ask you again.”
As you probably guessed, that was after I politely declined going with him to watch a theater show.
At the same time, though, I think really close friends will understand, and perhaps not be so easily offended or upset. They surely understand life is busy, time is limited, and words can be few and far between. But the thing that makes them great friends is that they recognize, don’t cast judgment and are always there when you suddenly feel like catching up in a few weeks or months.
But gege reminded me that in China, guanxi (connection) reigns supreme. Go out and socialize, no matter how tired you are or how much you just want to stay in bed and sleep, especially with professional contacts.
One day, when you least expect it, you will need to make a withdrawal on that built-up guanxi credit, as calculating and cold as that sounds.
Maybe he’s got a point.