Based on a conversation between Hadeer Ghareeb and Julia Felicitas Michel
In a fast and ever-changing environment where we get up, work, fulfill our daily duties and are constantly busy with something, we sometimes lose connection. The connection to ourselves but also to others. In a world that is getting more virtual and volatile, slowing down to make space and time to focus, re-connect, and invest in relationships is challenging. Amidst this situation, Hadeer decided to start the Slow Communication Experiment.
“If we are not busy, we are lazy and already saturated with so much information.”
It all started with a question: How does the way we communicate shape and affect our relationships? This question was born from Hadeer’s personal experiences with communication in and with her surroundings. She was wondering what communication would look like in a world where people do not limit their expression to a short text or voice message, a tweet, or a story on Instagram, and what it had been like before all of these digital tools were available to us. She developed a sense of curiosity to find answers to the question by opening a call for participation in the Slow Communication Experiment on her social media accounts. After the first round of the experiment was a success and participants were asking for a second opportunity, she started a second call. Julia was among the people who were reached by the second call and she decided to participate.
The Slow Communication Experiment
What is this idea? – you may ask. Within the frame of an anonymous, facilitated four-week long letter exchange, the procedure of the experiment involved the following steps. The participants would write a few lines to Hadeer before she matched them with another person partly based on commonalities she found in the first few sentences and partly based on intuition. The task she gave the participants was to write one letter per week and send it to her with a picture representing the mood or other insights into the life of the sender. Everyone responded to the task differently. Some wrote handwritten letters and sent a photo of the letter through E-mail. Some handwrote texts on their tablets, and others sent their texts in a Word document. Then the letters, in the form of E-mail attachments, were exchanged.
Where the magic happens
With the permission of the participants, Hadeer crossread some of the letters and witnessed the conversations that were emerging between two strangers who didn’t have anything in common at first except for the fact that they decided to get involved in this social experiment. She witnessed many different ways participants started to relate while writing about very different aspects of life, such as their last meal, big philosophical questions, or deeply personal stories and experiences.
“As we grow older and as time flies, the less genuine communication has become and eager for fast responses. We also have come to a time where we fear strangers over the internet due to the immense cyber bullying, cyber attacks and catfishing. We all know the dangers of the internet. But this experiment got me back in time, where we appreciated E-mail communication with others.”
The matches were partly random and partly by design and brought together people from different continents who speak different languages, come from different cultural backgrounds, and live in very different realities. Interestingly, many of the matches turned out to be a unique opportunity for the participants to create a space of trust and mutual growth through their letter exchange. Despite the differences in background, they often realized a shared interest in the same topics and found a common language in their letters.
Finding a common language
One participant with a story of constantly moving to different countries observed herself always wishing for more (success, access, encounters). Her match was a person who decided to move from a big city to a rural area to live life in the rhythm of nature. They exchanged many thoughts and ideas, and were able to expand their horizons by getting in touch with what can be considered an opposite model of life. Another match found the common language of food in their letters. They filled their letters with pictures and stories about the meals they prepared and enjoyed, and reflected on rituals and relationships that revolve around eating, acknowledging the close connection between food and its value to communication and social interaction.
Considering that this experiment took place during the time of a global pandemic, the one commonality participants found were experiences of isolation and the different extent to which people were affected by it in different parts of the world. Isolation was described as a trigger that made some participants rediscover how much they enjoy quiet time and expressing themselves in a written form. At the same time, the letter exchange was an opportunity for some participants to openly speak about their mental health status, about how isolation increased the challenges they already had with existing mental health issues, and how they realized that they are not alone with this struggle.
“What I learned the most is that no matter what we go through in life, we can always find that one person who will listen to our story.”
Anonymity as a door opener
In an ideal world, we would be able to openly communicate with each other without the risk of being confronted with negative reactions to sharing, for example, about struggling with mental health. But since we don’t live in an ideal world, anonymity can be very helpful in order to start vulnerable and honest conversations that develop a deeper sense of understanding and relationship to another person. In many exchanges, the participants found a space for topics that are usually not expressed. A space where they could exist. Hadeer witnessed how participants were able to mutually support each other in a process of unfolding, which would most probably not have taken place if those two people had met in person.
“I realized that talking to a stranger is more comforting than talking to someone you know and I personally believe as humans, we need this from time to time.”
Anonymity takes away limiting factors like cultural beliefs, religion, societal norms, stigmas and fear. Hadeer witnessed different situations where participants created a perfect persona of their match in their minds and communicated with this idea of a person. When they found out who was behind the written words, they were surprised and expressed that they would have never spoken to this person the way they did, when they were writing to a stranger. An example here is that one participant felt very comfortable asking for advice, thinking his match was a man. Later, when he found out that he had been writing and accepting advice from a different gender, he saw himself confronted with a very new experience. So, while some minds magically connected and “found” each other, the reveal of the physical identity behind the written words caused reactions of surprise in some cases. The experiment made visible how limited we sometimes are in choosing who we want to relate to, in what way, and how strongly sexism, racism, ableism and other forms of discrimination influence the way we connect.
“These types of activities should be more frequent. They help to connect to people with whom you think you have nothing in common, but in the end you discover that you have similar tastes and hobbies. Now I have a new friend from the other side of the world and it’s great.”
When looking back at the experiment and everything that happened between the participants throughout the letter exchanges, we were able to see that the communication developed in different ways. When both sides were open to expression, information could be shared. The real relationships evolved when participants read deep into each other’s letter and wanted to understand and write a story not as individuals but together. In this sense, a letter is not just words on paper. When two people find a shared writing language, they are able to connect beyond limits.
“There are millions of people around, but very few opportunities to feel close and confident with someone that is also willing to tell you their stories. Long writing is a good way to let yourself open up and also meet someone like in the old days.”
“This experiment made me realize how I was in my own little world when there are so many people to meet even if travel is restricted. You travel through the person’s words, experiences, feelings and pictures. It’s an amazing experience.”
“The most surprising part of this experiment was that it gave my life a certain stability and structure I really needed in these busy and chaotic times. Sitting down to write a more elaborate letter has a meditative aspect to it and also creates a space for conscious communication.”
The benefits of the letter exchange were perceived on various levels. One participant, who struggled to focus on writing in the beginning of the experiment, actually said that the regular exercise to write a letter helped him improve his ability to focus. This experience left us thinking: writing, communication and concentration are skills we can practice and improve.
We want to close this article with a question, because every insight leads to a new question. The question that we draw from the Slow Communication Experiment is: If we translate the insights about communication to relationships: How can we (re-)learn to relate in our current situation? And what is the quality of relationships that we want to build and nourish? We hope you will be drawn to find your own answers to it after reading this article.