The Easier It Is, The Less It Means

To get to my girlfriend’s graduation, I had to walk past nearly two blocks worth of aggressive street vendors hawking their last-minute congratulatory wares: trophies, stuffed animals, flowers, balloons, etc. A month later, when greeting her at the airport at midnight, I saw the same thing (though more muted, in that deadening airport-vibe way): a bevy of welcome-home paraphernalia, inversely correlated between their shabbiness and their shamingly advantageous markups. I wondered, who would actually be happy to be greeted or congratulated with such an obviously forgetful gift? It’s the thought that counts, right? So what does it say when the thought is, “I value this person about as far as I can throw them”? (I’m not a strong man, but I mean that literally. My girlfriend passed by the same vendors on her way in, both to graduation and the airport lounge, so I actually probably could have thrown her that meager distance.) 

Ultimately, this comes down to social constructs. We believe certain formal displays of affection are not only desired but obligatory, and we’re triggered–I use the word intentionally, since this is a form of behavioral conditioning–by the sight of gifts. Each person who buys into that only makes us feel worse about the fact that they’re doing it, no matter how irrational we know it is, while we’re not. Much as I don’t want to be the guy who greets his girlfriend with shriveling flowers from the airport Hudson News that’s five feet away, I also don’t want to be the guy who greets her with nothing more than wide-open arms, a smile, and a kiss. Thankfully, I could care less about conventions like these: I have my own way of expressing my undying affection for my girlfriend, and I’d like to believe that they’re more creative than anything store bought. I’m fortunate enough that she understands my feelings on this issue, too: there’s nothing worse than being accused of being a romantic cheapskate, or getting perpetually bullied into picking up the tab because it’s the “gentlemanly” thing to do. A real relationship is built on those quirky little things between you that become rituals and inside jokes, and cannot be supplemented by artificial enhancements. Not that there’s anything wrong with roses–but they should be a surprise, not an expectation.

Perhaps this makes sense so far, so I’ll twist it a bit now. In the last week, I’ve seen a lot of my friends rainbow-shade their profile pictures on Facebook in an act of what I’ll call “Internalidarity.” That’s Internet solidarity, for the forced-portmanteau fans out there, but I’ve made it awkward on purpose, because I want to emphasis the internal part. This act is just another act of commercial showmanship (the filter was designed by Facebook), and while I’m all for supporting all the wonderful, belated strides the Supreme Court made toward equality with their decision to recognize marriage, I’m not sure what it really says about us when we do so by taking two seconds out of the day to run a filter app. Especially if your reason for doing so is to send a social signal to your friends that you’re “with it,” lest someone think that your decision to keep your profile picture as it is somehow marks the opposite: that you’re a bigot of some kind, some sort of homophobic monster who can’t even spare a second to digitally march with his brothers.

This isn’t that, especially in light of the historic strides our society is making. It’s that we should be able to express ourselves how we want; not in a pre-packaged (and ironically) heterogenous way. If you genuinely want to rainbow-filter your life, great! If you prefer a different form of expression, or to say nothing at all? Also acceptable. It should worry us all that I can, however tenuously, link the deplorably monetized expression of love with the troublingly commercialized expression of life. We’re all guilty of letting the world “help” us make things a little less intimate, whether that’s something as innocent as a birthday alert or the decline of the handwritten birthday card to the Hallmark card and now the eCard (no matter how humorous). The easier we make our everyday interactions, the less thought we need to put into them and, consequently, the less they mean. At the end of the day, I’m going to judge you on what you mean, not on what you express–even if the media has all but erased the fact that intent can be very different from action.

EDITED TO ADD: The Atlantic has an interesting piece on how this might all be a data-mined experiment from Facebook, checking to see if it can determine exactly what it takes to convince people to cave to peer pressure. I hate it when my cynicism (especially in the light of something as a beautiful as a free rainbow) may appear to have an actual foundation.

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