2023-02-17 🍵 Notes on keeping in touch with friends and clients from far away.
Use a mnemonic. Give your self a GPS reference point, a north star, a southern cross.
I’ve got a friend who always keeps his Seiko wristwatch set to UTC -8. It doesn’t matter if he’s in his hometown (UTC +9). He doesn’t adjust it to local time when he’s in the city where he feels most at home (UTC +2). Once, in the tiny town (UTC -5) where he and I went to college, I asked him about it. He said he keeps it set to the timezone where his parents live. It helps him remember to call his mom.
It’s easier to give your attention to the people and places around you. That physical proximity makes them harder to ignore. When important relationships do not have the luxury of proximity, it helps to have a reminder.
I start using my friend’s wristwatch-as-memory-device technique to help me prioritize. I buy a cheap watch from a street market. Is it supposed to look like a Rolex? It’s so cheap it stops working almost immediately after I buy it. I wear it on a few work trips. Having the thing on my wrist is a good way to remember the stuff that matters.
I remember to call my client and give her a project update: UTC +8.
I remember to text my girlfriend, after she leaves work work and before bed: UTC -4.
I get a cheap Casio, which does not break.
When I need to keep up with a series of group calls with contacts spread across 10 timezones, the first thing I reach for is that watch. Why not just add a clock widget to your phone’s home screen? You could! I like having the physical reminder on my arm. Sometimes, I just use a hair tie or take the rubber band off the broccoli and put that around my wrist. Maybe it is time to modernize and get a smartwatch.
When I moved away after 3rd grade my best friend sent me a dispatch from his summer adventures via cassette tape in the mail. It made me so happy. I think I listened to it 3 or 4 times. Then, I flipped the tape over, narrated my reply and sent it back. Summer wasn’t the same but it was good to hear a familiar voice, you know? Thanks friend and friend’s mom. For me, this was a great lesson – just work with what you’ve got and find a way to be there.
Feeling out of sync. How do you fix that?
I’m excited to catch up with a friend for the first time in the new year but I miss the call because I’ve transposed the agreed-on time from his timezone to my own. Silly mistake. It can happen when I’m busy or sleepy or don’t write things down – in this situation it was all 3. Apologies, friend.
Record both time and timezone in your calendar for reference later on.
I’m talking with an American client who is surprised to learn that China uses 1 official timezone. Those timezone calculator websites only help so much when you’re trying to schedule an international call with a contact somewhere in the western-half of the country. People use unofficial, local time. You can set your alarm for 07:00 Beijing Time but the neighborhood isn’t going to wake up for hours. This surprised me, too, the first time I experienced it. China spans 62 degrees longitude. (That’s more than the contiguous US, which spans 57 degrees longitude, and is split into 4 timezones.)
It’s a good idea to confirm the timezone, and more, when you’re planning a call.
I’m chatting with a friend who has lived on the west coast of the US for several years. She’s stressed out and studying for her PhD. She doesn’t realize that the US has multiple timezones, much less that it is hours later for me than it is for her. Groggy and preoccupied with thoughts of work in the morning, I’m less focused on the conversation than I would like. I feel bad and apologize. She is embarrassed that, even after years of living in the country, she didn’t know this simple fact about the place.
People assume their frame of reference is also your frame of reference.
Because her team needs to work during the Martian night, when their solar-powered rover sleeps, NASA operations engineer Nagin Cox and her team adopt Mars time. I perk up and listen to the interview for timezone tactics I can borrow.
An Earth day is 39 minutes shorter than a Mars sol, so the team wear customized, mechanical watches. After the first week, their Mars schedule has pulled them back 4.5 hours from the local time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in southern California. Want to measure that in jet lag terms? It would feel like flying west from Los Angeles (UTC -8), over the international dateline and then a bit past New Zealand (UTC +12). The team covers their windows at the office and in their homes. Their Mars missions are 90-sol-long. By that point they have drifted 2 and half days off the local time. Daily mission schedules are talked about using words like “yestersol,” “tosol” and “nextersol.”
Do what you have to do to get yourself on Mars Time.
Signals and Scripts
I’ve been assuming there is a signal. There is not always a signal, of course. Make a backup plan. Lucky you if your contact is the sort of person who is helpful troubleshooting these situations. Definitely involve that person in the planning process:
- Let’s pick an extra option for our call on [date, time]. [Preferred VOIP app] is glitchy in [location] because of censorship. Any ideas for a fallback plan?
You might end up needing to coordinate a call with someone who isn’t good at this part. Maybe they haven’t had much practice yet. Maybe they’re too busy to contribute to the planning process. Whatever. With these folks, talking through your plan in advance is even more important. It’s best to visualize a few likely scenarios by yourself, and then share your plan. I try to do this in a way that doesn’t require much effort from my contact but still gives them a clear picture of any likely challenges. Maybe something like:
- In addition to our usual WhatsApp chat, you can reach me at [travel @ email]. The timezone in [location] is [N hours behind]. Can I call you on [date] at [time] your time?
- In my experience, the signal between [location A] and [location B] isn’t reliable. I will text you from [local number] at [time] to check in beforehand. Just in case the bandwidth for a call doesn’t hold up, let’s try when I get to [location C] on [date]. Will that work for you?
Really, it’s not the logistics that wear me out. Social signaling can take a lot of effort. You are attempting to be in 2 places at the same time. It can be hard to know what to say. Lately, I’ve been trying to use cues, tiny scripts, to keep the conversation on track.
The “vibe check” is one I’ve been using a lot. If something wild is happening, like a natural disaster or manmade fuckery, I will just address it right away:
- Hi. Just checking in. Heard about the [disaster] in [place]. What’s the vibe in your neighborhood?
This script helps me get a better idea of the other person’s state of mind, and the environment around them. The idea is to intentionally, but gently, solicit all that background info you need before the start of a conversation. Hopefully, I can do this without being annoying:
- I know you’re busy dealing with [trouble]. Would it be better to talk about [work topic] another day?
Be sensitive to the emotional payload. If my contact is in a stressful situation, they might start to vent at this point. Let it play out so that you don’t accidentally trivialize what the person is experiencing. Sometimes, I need to discreetly set the phone down while they’re mid-rant and take a few deep breaths. That’s okay. Other times, people would rather focus on something else. That’s okay, too:
- You want me to talk for awhile?
Try to minimize your own stress. Monitor your own tone of voice. A classic tactic is to count to 3 before you start talking. This isn’t easy. And the number of times I have failed to do this adds up to a lot more than 3.
Speaking of minimizing stress, NATO phonetics are very useful during voice conversations. Choppy audio and loud background noises never seem to happen during the boring bits of a conversation.
You can guess your way through a story. What about a booking code or a name? When you can’t switch to text, use NATO phonetics to get the details right. A friend taught me a great trick to build fluency: Practice using street signs. (Main Street is “Mike Alpha Igloo November.”) And, if you’re driving, use license plates when you’re waiting at a red light. Spell out as many as you can before the light turns green.
The “why-first” script is another favorite. First, I’ll explain the intention, my why. Then, I’ll make my request or pass along some piece of information.
- Just wanted to update you. I’m at [airport 1] and expect to arrive at [airport 2] by [date] + [time] + [timezone].
- Let’s be sure I get you what you need. [Rephrasing client’s instructions]. Is that right?
- Sorry, I don’t understand. My [2nd language] isn’t as good as I’d like. Will you explain [confusing phrase] again?
People are busy with their own lives. Confusion can creep into the conversation when people have different expectations – like when day for me is literally night for you. Front-load the rationale for what you’re about to say, and you can mitigate some of that. That is my working assumption.
Last updated: 2023-02-17