I am really bad at calling my mother. I’m not alone. “Call mom” is among the most frequently uncompleted tasks on people’s to-do lists. In July 2015, my partner and I moved from the US to India, and I vowed make a real effort to stay in touch with people back home, and especially my mom. It isn’t the first time I’ve lived abroad, and I had hoped that I’d learned from previous experiences how to be better at it. Despite my best efforts, however, the results have been mixed, so I set out to learn from people who do it better than I do.
First I’ll tell you what I tried.
A few weeks before I left the country, I set up a standing weekly Skype date for my mom and all my sisters. We had a chance to Skype together a few times while I was still in the US, making several dry runs. My rationale was it would be better to test the waters and learn from our mistakes before I was halfway around the world in a very different time zone. The whole point of making it weekly is so that not too much time passes between catch-ups if someone misses a call here and there.
The system has helped me keep in touch with my three sisters, as well as a niece and nephew who pop into frame from time to time. My mom, however, hasn’t been able to keep up. A few months ago, she took on another weekly obligation at the same time. Furthermore, when she could join us, her bandwidth didn’t support a video call, so she had audio only and felt left out.
Another thing I did before the big move was start a TinyLetter email list to share weekly updates about life in India. I chose email rather than a blog because I didn’t want to have to pester people to check the blog all the time. (Yes, I know it’s possible to subscribe to blog updates by email, but not everyone in my family does.) The email list is opt-in. People can ignore messages if they want. I also like the ability to keep an eye on who joins the list. Most of the updates are short and include a photo or two. When a TinyLetter message is particularly good, a handful of people reply, which gives me feedback about what people find engaging.
I also make a conscious effort to post on Instagram more, too. I reinstated an old WhatsApp account. I even gave out my Google Voice phone number, which has a US area code, so that people could call me without worrying about international dialing. Anyone who emails me should know by now that I’m good for a lengthy response within a day.
But I’m still a little disappointed in the results, at least for a few specific people. I rarely talk to my mom, and don’t even get me started on my dad.
Luckily, I have many friends and acquaintances who are absolute experts at keeping in touch. I reached out to some of them for advice, both for this column and for myself. Their stories highlight the secrets to making long-distance communication work.
Candice and Mom: Chit-Chatters
The first person on my list of people to ask for advice was my sister Candice, who lives in New York. She uses the most basic of technological solution, the mobile phone. She literally talks to our mother, who lives in Florida, multiple times a day. I had no idea how she managed it, so I asked.
“I call Mom usually a couple of times per day, mostly only during the weekdays,” she told me by email. “We rarely text each other—only when I’ve tried calling her a few times in a row and she hasn’t responded.”
It sounds impossible, right? But Candice has a few keys to making it work:
- keep conversations short and chit-chatty,
- make a habit of calling at a certain time, and
- find a rhythm.
“We don’t get into deep conversations about life. We talk about the day-to-day. What time did you wake up? How’s the dog? How was work today? What’s the weather like? What are you doing this weekend?” she wrote.
Candice’s routine is to call whenever she’s in transit, which usually brings conversations to a natural end. She calls when she’s walking to the subway and hangs up when the train arrives. Or she calls on her lunch break and it ends when she needs to get back to work. I’ve seen it firsthand. We’ll be walking somewhere, and Candice will take out her phone: “Let me call mom real quick. [Dials.] Hi mom. What did you have for breakfast? How’s Will [the dog]? Oh, me? I’m with Jill, and we’re on our way to X. Oh, I gotta go! [Hangs up.]”
Candice said these short, frequent interactions make her feel closer, too. “If we don’t talk for a few days, or a week, it’s honestly more difficult to get into that rhythm. It’s as if we are more distant, and have to cover the broader topics first, like ‘How are you? Any health issues?'” The chit-chat nature makes it work.
The takeaway here is that you don’t necessarily need to have a fancy app- or service-based solution for staying in touch, if you can make better, more focused use of the technology you no doubt already have on hand.
Meredith in Sweden: Use Every App, Be Spontaneous
Meredith is a friend and former PCMag colleague who recently moved to Stockholm, Sweden. Her approach is different from my sister’s, as she tries to keep up with everyone from her friends in New York to her not-so-tech-savvy grandmother.
Her tricks are to:
- use a wide variety of iPhone apps and Android apps and methods of communication and
- reach out in the moment when you are thinking of someone.
When I asked Meredith if she keeps a standing date, the way I do with my sisters, she said, “It’s much more natural for me to text or send a snap to someone the moment I’m thinking of them. And with so many communication tools out there, that’s easy to do.”
She is definitely a woman of many tools. “If a friend has an iPhone,” she said, “I try to continue to use iMessage. My dad has an Android, so we use WhatsApp.” She used to talk to friends during work hours in Gmail’s chat app, but said it’s harder now that they work different hours. “I downloaded the Hangouts app so I can Gchat with them while they’re at work, even if I’m not,” she said, keeping their previously established habits alive.
“I also use FaceTime (audio and video), Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and Skype.” In other words, Meredith uses whatever app or tool her friends and family are most comfortable using or already have a habit of using. Using a variety of messaging apps also helps her keep her communication free.
I asked her how she manages to keep up with it all. “Sometimes when I have a few minutes, I’ll scroll back through my iMessages and see if there’s someone I haven’t checked in with in a while, but otherwise, I reach out when the person crosses my mind,” she wrote.
“Snapchat is a really underrated tool when it comes to staying in touch,” she added. “I love that it makes communication fun and spontaneous. I might not have anything important to say, but if I send a snap to a friend showing my desk or the view from my window, it gives him or her a glimpse into my everyday life.”
Amanda and Annie: Put a Date on the Calendar and Commit
Last year at my friend Amanda’s wedding, her friend Annie gave a speech. In the speech, Annie praised Amanda for her ability to keep in touch, mostly by Skype, since Annie moved to the UK in 2006. That’s ten years of long-distance friendship.
It was hardly surprising to me, however. Two of Amanda’s best traits are that she’s a planner and she’s a woman of her word. They both help her keep in touch with Annie and other friends who live far away. But it takes two to tango.
“I do pride myself on being able to stay in good touch with the friends who are interested in doing it with me,” Amanda wrote by email. “I’ve used the phone, Skype, (and less frequently but nice to stay in more touch, email, Gchat, and text).” She says she prefers phone or Skype for staying more closely in touch. “But in my experience, the mode of communication doesn’t really matter so much as both people prioritizing it.”
Here’s what Amanda does to that end:
- always have an upcoming date on the calendar for when to talk next,
- trust that the other party will commit to that date, and
- collaboratively get the next date on the calendar while still on the phone or video call.
Amanda has found that if she and Annie both plan for their next chat while they’re still on the phone or Skype, then the responsibility doesn’t fall solely on either one of their shoulders. They’re both planning and committing together.
“People generally make it clear if they’re willing and able to commit. It helps if both people are planners and are willing to put something the calendar,” Amanda wrote. “I think both people have to have the attitude that it’s a real date, not something that can be pushed aside if other in-person plans arise.”
She added, “Of course, people have to be reasonable about conflicts as they come up. But, like I said, I think the real key is prioritizing it.”
Iris and Her Family in the Philippines: A Standing Date
Iris’s parents retired to the Philippines in 2014. With a major time difference from New York, she knew staying in touch would take effort.
“It was difficult to keep in touch at first because we hadn’t set a specific time to talk. They were just settling in and were busy. Plus they’re 12 hours ahead and weren’t always online when I tried to call them,” she said.
Eventually, they decided that the best solution for them would be to have a set time every week to talk by video call using Facebook Messenger. Iris typically uses Google Hangouts for video calls, but her parents were more familiar with Facebook, so they chose that platform instead. Iris now:
- keeps a standing date
- always has the call scheduled on her calendar.
They now talk every Sunday night, New York time, which is Monday morning in the Philippines.
“It’s been working for us,” she wrote by email. Iris also said that she looks at her calendar obsessively, so keeping that standing date in her events list is crucial. “I’m guaranteed to forget if I don’t. I suppose the Sunday night calls have become a habit and I’d probably remember now, but it’s best not to risk it!”
Rebekah and Her Parents in Ethiopia: Work Within the Limitations
Rebekah currently lives in Jamaica, and previously spent five years in Perth, Australia. Perth is sometimes called the most isolated city in the world, Rebekah told me. Take a look at a map of Australia. Note that hardly anyone lives in the interior of the country. Now find Perth.
But Rebekah learned some tricks for staying in touch with people over long distances even earlier. When she was a kid, back before there was much of an Internet, her grandfather lived far away. He set up a standing date that Rebekah and her family took very seriously.
“The first Sunday of the month in the afternoon our time (this was in Ethiopia), we would expect his call. There was no rescheduling it because there was no email. Once in a long while, we couldn’t make it, but it was a fixture in my childhood and whenever I was home as an adult,” Rebekah said by email.
Since then, she’s become adept at:
- being flexible about how to communicate and
- working within other people’s limitations.
One of Rebekah’s unique challenges is figuring out the best way to communicate with her parents who still live in Ethiopia. Internet access is expensive and unreliable there, she said, making video calls a poor option for staying in touch.
To work within her parents’ limitations, Rebekah started a Tumblr page that she updates with pictures of her young son. She keeps the image resolution fairly low so that they have an easier time getting them to load.
I mentioned to Rebekah that one of the ways I keep up with my mother is through playing Words With Friends. We have at least one game open at all times. We don’t have deep conversations in the app’s messaging section or anything like that, but I still see it as somehow touching base. It only works because I know my mom plays avidly. If she didn’t use that app, I wouldn’t either.
“I hadn’t actually thought about this in a conscious way, but I do it, too. I chat with one friend almost exclusively on Facebook, even though I generally do not use Facebook Messenger. We compromise and use Google Hangouts to chat sometimes,” she told me.
Mastering the Art of Staying in Touch
Mastering the art of staying in touch means varying how you do it to suit different people. The right communication tool, the appropriate length of a conversation, the right frequency, is likely going to be different for everyone. It depends on the person, the distance, the time zones, and what kind of relationship you have and want to maintain.
If you’re the one who cares about staying in touch, being nimble will likely be your responsibility. Developing a habit of some kind also seems to be a huge trick. Even communication that seems unplanned, like Candice’s chit-chat calls or Meredith’s spontaneous Snapchat messages, happens after a particular trigger. In Candice’s case, it’s being in transit. Meredith messages people the moment she thinks about them.
What I’ve learned from all these ideas about how people stay in touch is essentially to experiment more. The weekly Skype date that works for my sisters doesn’t work for my mom, so I need to try other avenues until we land on something that we can both turn into a habit.