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Community in the Time of Cyberspace

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Last week, I'm hanging out at my favorite bookstore Schuler Books, a Grand Rapids haunt that many locals favor. I'm killing time, waiting for the recall updates to my Toyota to be completed at the dealership across the street. Browsing in one of my favorite sections, Art & Design, I see a woman holding a book that I've just finished. Hoping to strike up a conversation, guessing we might have something in common, I offer, "I just read that book. It was really good."

"Oh," she replies cooly. "Thanks."

She immediately ends her browsing and quickly moves away. I reflect on the exchange. Do I look like a crazy vagabond today? Nope. Was I being rude? Umm... no. The kicker? The book was a novel about strangers coming together to build a sense of community.

After almost a decade of living here and with plans to stay indefinitely, I'm still working on calling the greater Grand Rapids area home. I love the opportunities that have bloomed in the area in the last 10 years. I cultivate various circles of friends. I've work professionally. I wed a native. Yet, I keep bumping into this phenomenon. Some people here are guarded. I'm still not used to it when I hit this impasse.

My husband chalked-up my brief exchange to the difference between living in a city versus the small community in which I was raised. There is a definite "everybody knows everybody" vibe to the rural, touristy area I still call home. Too few people live there year-round to make enemies. Things move a half-beat slower. I can still walk into the local grocery store and name most of the people working that day. Perhaps that is why when I'm waiting in line to check out at the grocery store in Grand Rapids, I'll turn to the person behind me in line and comment randomly on a tabloid headline. I've been met with various responses, but it isn't unusual for the person to turn to see who I'm talking to behind them. Actually, I'm speaking to you, sir. I know. A stranger. We do that where I'm from. In two minutes in the store up north, I might find out you are staying at the cottages a family friend owns. We make a connection, if only for a brief exchange.

Ironically, I've connected positively with a great deal of local Grand Rapidians online in the last couple years. Social media magnets like Facebook and Twitter may be drawing together others that are of a similar mindset. People who want to expand their world, to think of a totally different box. Actually, I met my husband this way 6 years ago. I'm finding I often connect with someone online, and end up liking them when we get a chance to meet. Are we more neighborly online? Sometimes, I think because it is easier. Perhaps, written down, a little more permanent.

Recently, I went out to dinner with two friends. One friend (let's call her Jane) has lived here most of her life. Jane is extremely well-read, has lived in other areas and traveled. The other (I'll name her... Layla) is one of my dear friends who also grew up in Northern Michigan. Layla spent a couple years here during college, and just recently moved back to Grand Rapids.

As we caught up, the topic turned to the phenomenon I've observed. Jane emphatically confirmed my thoughts. She explained that there is something about this area that also makes it a bit uncomfortable for her, always has. It's hard to exactly put your finger on it, a bit vague. Some people can be cold, a bit fake.

I agreed and shared some of my first-hand account along with this story. Another friend of mine (also a transplant to the area, we'll call her Sarah) talked of meeting someone new at a social function in a place she would continue to frequent. After a brief conversation and finding things in common, Sarah said to the new acquaintance, "We should get together sometime." This woman replied, "Our circle of friends is very full."

I guess at least her response was honest.

Layla was taken aback by these observations. She didn't experience this before, when she was sheltered by college life. I think we scared her a little. She's looking to make new connections. After hearing our accounts, she is concerned that this is going to be difficult. We assured her that it certainly is not everyone, but that there is a common vein that seems to snake through otherwise welcoming territory. We assured Layla that she is socially savvy. She will find plenty of people who are warm, welcoming and won't give her the cold shoulder. Our message to her? Just be aware. It exists. It lurks.

Try not to take it personally, was one of our messages to Layla. It is the other person's loss, not yours. One of my Facebook friends summed it up well by quoting Plato, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

I'm working on taking my own advice. And listening to sages.

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