Saturday, June 29, 2013

Circa Now: Nice to Meet You ... Again

No, my friend will counter, she herself hadn’t gone up to the roof, she had to leave early. No, no, I’ll reassert, you were up there. Um, no, you’re mistaken, she’ll maintain — I promise you, I wasn’t.

Then she’ll sheepishly explain what’s happened: a photograph of her holding a sparkler has recently been posted on Facebook. So, in my mind I’ll have grafted a 2013 photo onto a 15-year-old memory. Slightly embarrassed, I’ll apologize to my friend for my neuro-colonialism.

“I can imagine it’s much more common now,” Dr. Oliver Sacks said when asked about the blurring of online and offline reality, and the way some of us overinvest in what we see on screens. “Life used to be much simpler before computers, didn’t it?”

The relationship between manners and memory has always been fraught: anyone who utters “Have we met?” has walked on etiquette’s knife blade. But the current memory-scrambling that is a byproduct of the Internet’s information overload raises the ante.

Indeed, when added to longtime rust makers like aging, stress and alcohol and marijuana consumption, it can prove downright eerie. Gradually “Have we met?” has morphed into “Have we ‘met’?”

The landscape is particularly foggy for those who date online. Over the years, Kate Levy, an actress, has used the sites Match, Salon Singles and OkCupid. As a result, Ms. Levy said, she sometimes finds herself gazing at men on the streets of New York City, wondering how she knows them. “Just when you’ve figured out that he’s a guy from whatever dating site you use — someone you may or may not have interacted with, it doesn’t matter,” she said, “you realize he’s locked eyes with you, and now he’s trying to place you.”

Ms. Levy does not find the experience calming. “You quicken your step, let fall the veil of the neutral gaze and you get the hell past him,” she said. “You’re spooked by it: that’s not supposed to happen. That’s a face you’re not supposed to see except online, in the privacy of your laptop or mobile device. He should not even exist, really, until you want him to.”

For Eliza Brooke, a recent graduate of Yale, the issue is less what medical professionals call source confusion than it is of overpreparation. She said: “I have often Facebook-stalked someone extensively before actually meeting them — a random college classmate, a cute boy who’s a friend of a friend — and when you do meet them, you have to keep straight what you learned about them online from what you’ve just heard directly from them. Dude: ‘I played lacrosse in high school.’ Eliza: ‘Oh, cool. I have a friend who played lacrosse at Wayland High, too.’ And that’s weird if he never said he was from Wayland.”

As Dr. Sacks wrote in February in The New York Review of Books, “All of us ‘transfer’ experiences to some extent, and at times we are not sure whether an experience was something we were told or read about, even dreamed about, or something that actually happened to us.”

Regarding manners, what’s the best course of action for those of us whose grasp on reality is sometimes oversaturated with media? It’s probably best, once it’s clear that we’ve misinterpreted or embroidered reality, to apologize and to self-deprecate, perhaps jesting that we’re on retainer with Facebook as an undercover operative.

It may also behoove us to quickly introduce a zingy new topic of discussion as diversion — e.g., Doesn’t the word “canoodling” sound like some strange combination of boating and pasta?

For overzealous researchers like Ms. Brooke, the solution probably lies in donning a proverbial fedora and playing it cool.

But what about people who are on the receiving end of the information-drenched? We can take a few pointers from people who, like Dr. Sacks or the artist Chuck Close, suffer from prosopagnosia, or face blindness, and can’t recognize others.

Henry Alford is a contributing writer to Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners.” Circa Now appears monthly.

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