– Conversations in Connection Series 2 –
By Chris Small
Last week, a coworker asked if I was interested in going for a drink after our shift. Not at all an unusual request, even though we work at a bar. Even in pandemic times, a service industry Saturday can be thirsty work–and admittedly, eight hours behind the mask doesn’t help that cause. Notwithstanding my keen interest for a beverage to take the edge off, I still fell short of a definitive response.
There’s nothing wrong with this fellow, it’s quite the opposite. I’m at ease when we work together, he’s someone to chat with when things are slow, we share a sense of humour, even have similar interests. Still, he’s a work friend. I hadn’t been with him outside of our own bar even once. I was anxious to see this person in a place that I hadn’t before: would we still just talk about work, coworkers, our bosses? What happens when we run out of all those service horror stories?
Through a mixture of my own anxiety to make a friend out of a coworker, and some other obligations I declined, but of course, expressed my interest to plan for some time in the future.
“You free tomorrow?” I wasn’t. I had an interview planned.
The hunt for my first interview on intergenerational learning experiences was short lived. A highschool classmate had told me that she recently moved in with a seventy-year-old woman living in False Creek. I reached out to my friend, Jasmine Holmes, about the Together-We-Empower project, and sent her a few links to pages on our e-platform. Fortunately, she was keen to tell me a little bit more about her living situation and be the focus for the first part of our Conversations in Connection series.
Jasmine moved in with her new roommate just before the pandemic (we’ll refer to her as Liz, for now), and although they are freshly sharing a living space, the connection between the two women isn’t young. The first encounters between the two were from Jasmine’s early childhood–Liz was a friend of her parents. The two kept in regular informal contact throughout Jasmine’s adolescence, before losing touch a bit when she went off to university in Victoria in fall of 2017. While lots of these interactions were through her parents, Jasmine admits that she considered Liz “a life coach through most of the years”. When Jasmine acquired a job as a rowing coach in False Creek this past July, the opportunity arose not just to find a new home close to work, but to re-embrace an old connection, albeit in a newfangled way.
The last few months, Jasmine has been in a two bedroom apartment with Liz, they share a bathroom, kitchen and a small common living space. I asked her whether she thinks that their relationship is developing into something different than it was through Jasmine’s childhood and teenage years: “Oh of course,” she responded. “But I still think of us as friends first”. This stood out to me. There’s a history between the two, a personal, intergenerational friendship that underpins their daily interaction. But context has changed. Now Jasmine is living with this longtime friend, life-coach, or mentor. Making a roommate out of someone who is a “friend first” is nothing uncommon, however there is something significant about it. In many cases, making roommates with someone that you haven’t known previously is an easier way to go: with every stranger presents that tabula rasa. Moving in with friends is different because carried alongside this action is a primary label to the relationship. The friend is the formative role played between the new roommates. Thus, a challenge is presented when the two have to share a living space. All of a sudden, Jasmine had to take on a multiplex relationship, not only is she a friend of Liz’s but now she is a roommate.
Multiplex relationships are essentially a connection between parties that take on multiple sets of interpersonal and social expectations. Although Jasmine knew Liz well before moving in, she wasn’t certain what her living habits were like. The domestic expectations that manifest with a shared living environment formed a new level of the relationship that the pair have to navigate together. Jasmine told me that so far the two of them have done a fair job of splitting up the domestic tasks, and they even share lots of their meals. Although, Jasmine and Liz have an age difference between them, and so naturally, their lifestyles are juxtaposed. This seemingly unique characteristic, of non-familial roommates with such a difference in age indeed adds the intergenerational twist of the newly constituted multiplex relationship between the two women. For the most part, Jasmine and Liz live different lifestyles, and so living habits are still personal to each. Even though, as Jasmine mentioned, the two tend to “step on each other’s toes some of the time”, this dichotomy of lifestyles that is brought together into a shared space of enclosure has been a major benefit to Jasmine’s outlook on the world around her. Watching, listening, and living with Liz gives Jasmine the ability to take the wisdom of a life long-lived into every piece of her day. Inversely, Jasmine allows herself to be a re-energizer for Liz, providing a sense of health and energy that is crucial to meaningfulness at all stages of life.
Furthermore, the intergenerational nature of this multiplex relationship gives Jasmine the ability to take advice, mentorship, and life-coaching through a filtered perspective. Indeed, she admits that the two have a close, empathetic and emotional relationship, but they still stand at a distinctive distance from each other that often cannot be said in those close family situations. The two can share advice and manifest an intimate living environment without destroying the important barriers between them, a breakdown that can be all too familiar in close family relationships. Although Jasmine admits that Liz can, “feel like [her] mom at times”, the foundational roles played between the two of friends and roommates allows Jasmine an independence and the free ability to take every piece of advice or conversation with a foremost personal perspective.
To me, the living situation that Jasmine is a part of highlights two seminal characteristics that promote the value and development of the intergenerational project as a vital means through which empathetic learning spaces manifest. The first is the multiplex nature of this relationship: Jasmine and Liz are able to effectively operate and communicate with each other in an enclosed environment by having a relationship that allows them to play different social roles at different times. Jasmine can be a friend to Liz, providing inspiration when she is feeling down, but also be a roommate, and relieve any stress Liz might have around the house by taking on those shared domestic responsibilities. Furthermore, the different roles taken on between the two allows for the capacity to learn from and teach each other on different frontiers of social convention. Secondly, the multiplicity of these roles played helps to facilitate empathy by perceiving each interaction through a more holistic understanding of the person. Jasmine has the ability to look at any domestic interaction with Liz as a roommate but also as a friend. As a result, any fallout at one level of the relationship between them can be understood in a broader context, and thus more empathetically by perceiving the fallout through the multiplicity of relational positions that exist between the two. This increased relationality helps to foster better intergenerational understandings between people because one can perceive the actions of another by inclining towards multiple different roles present in the relationship and ultimately gain a much more nuanced understanding of the person.
In light of the takeaways from my interview with Jasmine, I was brought back to that conversation the day before with my coworker, and sent him a text to meet for a drink the following day. Indeed, it’s clear to me asking to go for a drink outside of work was proposing a crossing of a boundary of our relationship up to that point. Iit was casual, but unprecedented between us. This is where my hesitation was situated. I was afraid of being forced to interact with this person through a new paradigm because I had become so comfortably accustomed to the role conditions of the original. This is to say that undoubtedly at times the paradigms of a relationship between people can be difficult to cross. And undoubtedly, reluctance or nervousness that manifests at the bounds of interpersonal communication is felt heavier by some than others. But making that jump, out of the workplace or into the new home, and adding a second, third, fourth position of relation with someone is instrumental as it establishes a greater horizon of understanding between one and another.