At the end of a college study abroad trip in England, my group gathered at a local pub and acknowledged that, in the coming days, we wouldn’t be in each other’s company anymore. We’d all be getting on planes and flying to our homes in different states. We didn’t say goodbye, though. I remember one of the group saying, “It’s not goodbye; it’s I’ll see you later.” The words were comforting. In them was the possibility—and dare I say, promise—of staying connected.
A decade later, those words are still with me. The person who said them was not wrong. Some of us did get together again about a year after our trip. Since then, social media has kept me nominally connected to a handful of these individuals. Though I’ve really only kept up with the life of one person from this experience, I can passively glean information about others I haven’t spoken to in years.
Social media has made it possible to never really have to say goodbye to anyone. But it’s clear that some of these “friends” or “followers” are not really part of my life anymore. In a way, it’s exhausting to never have to say goodbye because I’m choosing to be connected to people I am not actually friends with and would not typically reach out to in person.
Research, though still developing in the realm of social media and true social connection, seems to support this feeling that social media allows much more connection than we can maintain. According to a 2014 article in the New Yorker, which explores the research of psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar, humans have a pretty fixed capacity when it comes to social interaction: “Judging from the size of an average human brain, the number of people the average person could have in her social group was a hundred and fifty. Anything beyond that would be too complicated to handle at optimal processing levels.” The article acknowledges that the development of connections on social media may change this number, but this research will be a few years in coming (as the connections and relationships of people who have spent their whole lives immersed in social media will need to be examined.) But it sure seems that Facebook’s 5000-friend limit and Instagram’s cap on user follows at 7500 is a bit beyond the realm of possibility in terms of making and keeping meaningful connections.
As I prepare to leave a city where I’ve spent the last half of my twenties, I’m more aware of wanting to say meaningful goodbyes. I think what I’m seeking with a goodbye is what a recent journal article in Motivation Science calls “a well-rounded ending, defined as an ending marked by a sense of closure.” The result of a well-rounded ending is easier transition and aid in “promoting a good start” for the next phase in life. Acknowledging that there are limits to my ability to keep in touch with all the acquaintances I’ve made in this city, I am coming to grips with the fact that the goodbye I posted on social media might be the closest I get to ever “speaking” with these individuals again. For others who I’d consider closer friends, I realize there is the possibility of not seeing them in person again. And this is painful. Though social media and other technologies (text, video calls, etc.) have successfully bridged the distance between people, I want to be intentional about these goodbyes, not only so that I transition better into the next phase in my life, but so those I cared about here can also adjust well to a change in their circle of friends. Below are a few ways I’m intentionally saying goodbye.
01. Spending face time with friends.
Even when going-away gatherings aren’t possible, I am trying to make intentional time to spend with close friends before I leave. This is either an in-person activity (ordering coffee to-go, taking a walk, sitting on a friend’s porch) or a virtual one (via video call), that allows me to share time with friends. Sometimes, the activity is tailored to what that friend and I like to do together. For example, one of my friends runs a tea room. Spending time drinking tea with her (and purchasing a few packages of her delicious tea) is how I plan to spend a meaningful last get-together.
02. Giving a small gift.
For some of my friends, I hope to share a parting gift from my own personal possessions. The gift need not be big—a bookmark, an unused journal, a tea steeper. The point of this small gesture is to leave friends with a small token to remember me by. When they use that item, my hope is that they’ll think fondly of our friendship. Though how one chooses gifts is entirely personal, I like the idea of giving from what I have instead of buying new for two reasons—first I have impetus to really go through my possessions and to make choices about what should go with me and what should stay behind. Second, items that I’ve owned take on a more personal quality. Knowing my friend and I have touched the same object (like a book or a mug) creates for me a sense that, in a way, I’ll stay with my friends even when I’m away.
03. Writing thank-you notes.
Before leaving my place of work, I hope to write a thank-you note to every member of my team. I want them to know what I admire about them, and how their presence has impacted me. For friends I might be unable to see before leaving, this method will allow me to express my gratitude for their presence in my life. Though, ideally, I’d be able to tell my friends I do get to see in person what I love about them, the thank-you note allows me to say what I might struggle to say in person, to unfold memories and appreciation at a slower rate than the pace of speech allows. It also gives friends the privacy and time to take in my words, especially if praise or appreciation is embarrassing for them. A note is also something my friends can return to in the future, if they’d like to “hear” my voice again.
Will I actually utter the words “goodbye” in a culture that’s so used to “see you later”? Probably not. But I do hope that in the process of saying goodbye, I allow friends and myself a grace that social media doesn’t necessarily allow—the opportunity to choose whether we’d like to stay connected or not. And while the prospect of losing some people to distance and time stings a little, I will all the more savor the opportunity to stay connected with those I do stay connected to. Humans weren’t made for infinite connection, but I look forward to intentional communication with those I’m able to take with me beyond the goodbye.