I visited Oxford last week for a conference-workshop-retreat-thing (working title), which means I'm super jet lagged this week and have been temporarily consigned to the life of a morning person. I'm normally an extreme night owl, and the rare times I'm awake at daybreak are at the wrong end of the day. So when I begrudgingly got out of bed at 6am this morning (a notable improvement from 3am), I figured I'd go to the park and have my coffee with the sunrise for once*.
Dear reader, it was foggy and overcast. There was no sunrise. I'm not upset, but thanks for asking.
While I was walking, I thought back to the conversations I had in Oxford and to previous work retreats before that. I've only experienced remote work, and a lesson that I keep relearning is how impactful meeting in-person is. It's clearly helpful for productivity – for about a week, everyone's primary focus is on planning, on sharing knowledge, on aligning the big picture. But I don't think this is actually the most important part. There's a key social cohesion created, and not just from intentionally designed icebreaker activities.
When you first interact with someone, you get the broad strokes that everyone gets. He's a teacher, she's an engineer, they're a parent, a spouse, a sibling. Work intros often start with everyone rattling off education history, past jobs, and maybe a well-rehearsed fun fact. Basic knowledge is of course a necessary starting point, but how much of a picture do you really get of someone from that?
These are the things that often come to mind when we think of our identity, but billions of other people in the world are, say, cat or dog people, and I'd take short odds that there's more variance within one of those groups than between them. You can learn a dozen facts about a person and still be no closer to understanding them or building a close relationship.
Most people never see the the small, mundane, in-between moments in our lives, but I think this is where intimacy lies. I don't identify with a foggy morning; it doesn't feel like a part of who I am in any way. And yet, I'd only share this kind of story with a few people (and you of course, dear reader). I don't broadcast this to the world (kindly ignore that I'm publicly writing about it) because it isn't that important, and most people just won't care. For the people that do, they care because it's a story about me, because someone in their tribe experienced it, and because it means something to be one of the first people that comes to mind when anything happens.
I'm not saying that spending a week in person gets you anywhere near that level of closeness. But having such dense overlap in organic moments sure seems like a bigger step forward than as many video calls to hash out business logistics. There's no choice but to experience the ordinary together and much more space to fill with mundane questions (how was your morning?) and mundane stories (the funniest thing happened...). Maybe there's something like the Ben Franklin effect happening too – if sharing is caring, then perhaps caring follows sharing as much as the reverse.
I also notice that a drop-off in mundane sharing predicts an eventual drop-off in closeness**. I think this makes sense; most of what happens in our lives isn't news-worthy, so not talking about the boring stuff means much less contact overall. But beyond this, there's probably something powerful in gradually losing the urge to share and in the worry that you might be bothering someone with something uninteresting rather than feeling secure in the idea that anything is interesting to them if you're the main character. Sometimes the last things to develop are the first to go.
*Technically this happened a few days ago by time of publishing, but I wrote that line on the day it happened. Don't sue me.
**I'm also noticing while writing that I'm generally not sharing much of the boring stuff with anyone right now (so for my close friends reading this, don't go off thinking I secretly hate you in particular because I didn't tell you about a non-sunrise). This seems like a sign that I'm getting too isolated and need to give more attention to my social wellbeing.