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Social Distancing? We’ve Been Doing It for Years

In the shadow of the pandemic, we're rediscovering offline relationships.

Our lives today were unimaginable a month ago. Skies without planes; offices closed; streets empty. Everyone’s home; grounded. Physical interactions in public spaces are being replaced by virtual interactions in private.

The term of art for all this is "social distancing." According to a recent article in New Scientist, this means, “reducing your rate of contact with other people … avoiding public spaces and unnecessary social gatherings … [and separating] yourself from people you live with as much as possible.”

This new reality feels radically different. But is it really?

Premeditated Chaos/CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: Premeditated Chaos/CC BY-SA 4.0

Some would say that we’ve been practicing social distancing for years. Not to avoid infection but because of our cellphones. Numerous studies over the last decade indicate precipitous declines in non-virtual social interaction and increases in loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Each of these trends correlates positively with cellphone use.

Researchers are only just beginning to untangle the causal mechanisms at work here. But most agree that social media are reshaping how we define ourselves, form relationships and belong to groups. The glue that used to hold us together in families and communities appears to be coming unstuck.

So why does it feel so strange now? What are we missing that we weren’t missing before?

The short answer is: togetherness. Humans are social animals. As Aristotle put it, “even when they do not need each other’s assistance, people desire no less to live together.” The virtual kinds of togetherness that social media afford us are different, and thinner, than those we experience in everyday physical interaction.

Like other primates, a large portion of our communication and behavior is devoted to social grooming. When we raise eyebrows in recognition to a coworker, give a friend’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze or form an orderly queue for the bathroom or supermarket checkout, we establish our position in social space and calibrate our sense of self in response to others’ reactions. Absent these and we begin to fall apart.

That’s why many consider solitary confinement a form of torture. As Professor Craig Haney testified to the U.S. Senate in 2012, “loss of genuine forms of social contact … lead to an undermining of the sense of self and a disconnection of experience from meaning.”

Source: Rawpixel/CC0

With the help of cellphones and social media, we’ve moved a huge portion of our social lives online. But we’ve underestimated the contribution of physical togetherness to our general well-being. Ironically, many of the things we’re doing now in the name of social distancing are gluing us back together. Maybe temporarily and not how they used to. But in ways that integrate physical and virtual in new configurations we might find useful after the current crisis passes.

Office and school closures are bringing family members home. People are interacting with neighbors they’ve never noticed before. Reports of selfless behavior in the face of coronavirus began to emerge as early as February, when farmers in Shouguang began donating truckloads of agricultural produce and driving them in convoys to Wuhan.

More recently, we’ve witnessed outbreaks of singing and hand-clapping in Italy and dancing in Iran, as neighborhoods in lockdown and exhausted medical teams find new ways to connect, show gratitude, and raise morale. Indeed, social distancing itself is a form of altruism; millions of us around the world are restricting our own freedom to protect the health of others.

Of course, there’s a flip side to all this fellow feeling. We’re also fighting over toilet paper in supermarkets; indulging xenophobia; and terrifying each other with a constant stream of news and rumors. Cooped up family members are driving each other crazy, while many who live alone feel more isolated than ever.

A dentist I know in London treated patients for several days while asymptomatic. After he and some patients were diagnosed with coronavirus, he was shunned by his local community. He recovered. His practice and reputation might never do so. To quote Sartre out of context, “Hell is—other people.”

Nevertheless, beyond limiting the spread of infection, social distancing is doing positive things for us all. It’s showing us what we miss when we don’t bump into each other on the street or at the water cooler. It’s reminding us how much colder and thinner conversations are when conducted online rather than face to face. It’s forcing us to think about what is really worth our time, energy and attention. It’s giving us opportunities to use social media in ways that bring comfort and joy to those we can’t reach physically, such as grandparents and quarantined friends.

It’s tempting to spend our time in isolation in survival mode. But we’ve been given a unique opportunity to consider the kinds of social distance we’ve created without thinking and, based on our current experiences, to reconfigure our social lives in ways that combine physical and virtual interactions in healthier proportions. Let’s use it.