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The Bonding Power of Social Distancing

How staying apart brings us closer together.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay
Source: Image by klimkin from Pixabay

When it comes to in-person contact, for most people, less is not more. For all of the complaining we do about traffic, crowds, and lines in public places, most of us would much rather live in a community than the alternative. In the wake of pandemic social restrictions, empty streets and deserted shopping malls resemble end-of-the-world disaster films, not our vision of an ideal day off work.

The reality is that despite how attractive the option might have sounded while sitting in rush-hour traffic or standing in line at Starbucks, when actually confined at home, people miss the hustle and bustle of daily life, and as innately social creatures, we miss each other. More than that, we miss seeing each other in person.

Self-Isolating Makes Us Crave Company

Many grounded travelers and public employees confined to the privacy of their homes miss the human connection of living in community. From the serious to the superficial, we miss live conversation with everyone from coworkers in the hallway to strangers on the subway. Even the lighthearted exchanges with the barista at our regular coffee joint who asks if we want our “usual” as soon as we walk in the door are remembered with an air of nostalgia.

Because we are accustomed to living in community and perceive safety in numbers, when our communal existence is disrupted, we are vulnerable to experiencing feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and a sense of isolation.

The Warmth of Interpersonal Contact

There is an abundance of research indicating the value of social connection, including the consequences of interrupting social life. In an article in Scientific American, “Why We Are Wired to Connect” (2013), Gareth Cook included a discussion of what might happen when our social connections are suddenly severed. [i] He notes that research across studies of many different types of mammals, including humans, indicates not only that we are shaped by our social surroundings, but that we “suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.”

Cook also notes that although we recognize the potential self-serving value of networking in order to gain access to resources, including money, we do not need an ulterior motive for seeking interpersonal connection: We are wired to desire positive social connection.

This dynamic is expressed through the ways we interact with others. Friends often meet for coffee or lunch. Sure, we can text or Facebook message each other to keep up to date, but there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Phone and video calls are reserved for situations where it is impossible or impractical to meet in person.

The same rules apply in the professional realm. Although Zoom, Skype, and many other types of video conferencing are common substitutes for in-person meetings, they are not necessarily popular substitutes. A computer screen cannot recreate the warmth of laughter, eye contact, and body language that accompany live interaction, even in a purely professional context.

Being ordered to isolate makes us crave company even more, because in-person chemistry has become a scarce commodity. Thankfully, sheltering in place does not mean dropping off the grid. We can still be social while social distancing.

Confined But Connected

People who already spend a significant amount of time on social media are well equipped to stay in touch with their social network—which has no doubt expanded to include peers and coworkers they are used to seeing in person. The challenge is staying social while staying home.

A piece by Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic entitled “The Art of Socializing During a Quarantine” [ii] discusses ideas about how to stay connected, while staying confined. From video-chat lunch dates to Skype calls “to drink whisky and catch up,” he shares ideas from people who are finding ways to be alone together. He notes that people particularly recognize the social value of sharing meals, even virtually, because not only does everyone need to eat, scheduling video time together as opposed to engaging in purely electronic communication highlights the importance of the relationship.

Families Feel Better Together

In addition to socializing with friends, abiding by orders to shelter in place gives families more time to spend together. This precious, unexpected time can be creatively used in many different ways, from education, to exercise, to entertainment. As households hunker down, we renew our appreciation for the value of relationships. And although for many people, a forced workplace hiatus comes with a price tag, the opportunity to spend more time with loved ones may be priceless.




More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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