Social Distancing and the Instinct for Closeness

Apologies for my recent absence (though those of you who’ve been with me a while know it’s nothing new); I started back at work full-time about two weeks ago, and between evening shifts and busywork, I’ve really just wanted to come home and sleep after every day. Even my days off (like today) are typically spent dozing, so writing is simply taking something of a back seat at the moment.

That being said, being back at work has revealed some interesting things out of both observation and participation. I work in retail/technical support, which means I am mostly customer-facing and supporting people as they visit our store on a daily basis. And whilst we have reasonably strict protocols for regulating customer traffic, it isn’t working as well as I had perhaps initially hoped, for several reasons.

Masks are, of course, mandatory where I work for both employees and customers; if you don’t have one we’ll give you one, and if you refuse you aren’t getting in. But this immediately presents its own issues in a noisy, busy retail environment: it becomes really difficult to hear and understand people. And whilst we have training to help us learn to speak louder and with more clarity, soft-spoken customers do not. This means that I’m constantly fighting an instinct to lean in to better hear what my customer might be saying.

The instinct to lean in to hear isn’t the only one I battle at work, either; in a normal environment I would work side-by-side with my customers, helping them navigate their devices to troubleshoot and resolve whatever problems they might be having. Now, I have to deliberately put a significant distance between myself and my customer in order to maintain a safe working environment, which means it’s a lot harder to see what the customer might be doing, to help them learn how to do something specific, or to replicate technical issues without the customer’s involvement.

I see the same issue with my customers, too, only they typically aren’t as self-aware. They approach me, reach out hands to shake, or think that it’s perfectly okay to step up to within arm’s reach to talk (all things that, pre-COVID, were of course totally acceptable). And it’s a battle to constantly remind them, as well as myself, that in the current environment, this simply isn’t safe.

But the instinct for closeness goes beyond what I experience in my day-to-day at work. It extends to every part of human nature and interaction, which is why, I suspect, it’s so difficult to manage. As humans, we naturally want to be with other humans, to communicate, see their faces and their smiles and their frowns, and social distancing makes this incredibly difficult. We had a small, outdoor party the other weekend with just a few people over, and even then we were all struggling to remember to keep our masks on, or keep our distance. It doesn’t feel natural.

And this is clearly visible across the country, and across the world. Everyone desperately wants to go back to a way of life where we don’t have to worry about these things, and unfortunately, a lot of people are under the false belief that by acting as if everything’s normal, it somehow will be.

Things couldn’t be further from the truth. The United States, where I live, is currently one of the worst-afflicted countries in the world, and sadly I think it’s because there’s a notion in this country that one’s own personal beliefs and desires are paramount above anything – or anyone – else. From protests to acts of defiance to political figures – people in elevated positions of power and influence – outright refusing to acknowledge the dangers of not social distancing, this country is in rough shape because people cannot – or will not – overcome their instinct for social closeness.

We have to fight this instinct. We have to resist the urge to shake hands, to hug, to simply be around others, because every time we do, we are putting ourselves and everyone else in danger. And as we’ve clearly seen, it isn’t just a danger of getting the flu – there is a very real danger of death, and by all accounts an exceptionally unpleasant one.

So please, take an extra moment with every decision you make to ask yourself: do I need to do this, or do I want to? Will this action I’m about to take put me in closer contact with another human being than I need to be? And most of all, is there any chance that the person I’m about to interact with may be at risk of dying from an illness I may not even know I have?

Social distancing, and every other precaution we must take during this pandemic, is not a thing to be taken lightly. This is incredibly serious, and so far there seems to be no end in sight. Things won’t get better by themselves, and they won’t get better by pretending things are normal. And if you can’t bring yourself to care about other people, then at the very least consider your own health: is that party at the beach really worth dying for?

One out of every hundred people in the United States has already tested positive for COVID-19, and there are likely many, many more cases that go unreported. You know more than 100 people – I guarantee it. Which of those people are you willing to see die just so you can have some notion of personal freedom that isn’t even being taken away?

Please, think about these things … and do the right thing.

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