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.

What Social Distancing Means for Humans

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe and the world’s governments try to keep the cases at bay, a new phrase has cropped up: social distancing. In a nutshell, it means keeping away from people to limit the spread of infection, particularly when transmitted through the air.

For many of us, this means staying at home when we’d normally be out and about – whether it be shopping, dining out, or simply going to work. Some governments have outright prohibited all non-essential travel (the definition of essential, of course, is up for debate), meaning that for many of us, the normal social contact we would have with other people is at an absolute minimum.

At first, the introvert in me would want to think of this as a good thing; who wants to have to interact with other people anyway? But as the days wear on, it becomes increasingly evident that, even for the most antisocial among us, human contact is an essential part of our nature.

You see, humans – like many, many other animals – are inherently social creatures. We thrive when we are in a community, and perish in isolation. There’s a great deal of study into the psychology of this, but the bottom line is that people need each other to stay sane.

If this is the case, then what happens when we are forced into isolation? Whilst many of us are in isolation with a few other people, there are nonetheless some of us – those who live alone – who now have no physical connection to other people for days, if not weeks, at a time. Even if you live with someone, the limited social interaction of just a couple of other people is no comparison to the wealth of stimuli that comes from being able to simply talk to different people, with different perspectives, throughout your day.

Even as a fairly hardcore introvert (I get easily exhausted interacting with people), my day is usually filled with human interaction and socialization, and I use alone time to recuperate. Now that I’m working from home, the conversations with my colleagues and clients are at a bare minimum, and I find myself at times bored to tears.

Perhaps the only good news is that this particular pandemic has hit us at a time when we’re still able to socialize to a reasonable degree remotely, through technology. In fact, for our children, who are so used to socializing virtually, I suspect this quarantine is having a significantly lesser impact that it has had on adults who grew up having to interact in person. Through FaceTime, social media and online servers, we’re able to at the very least get the input from others that create intellectual stimulus, even if we aren’t benefiting from the more visceral reactions of being able to physically see, hear, and speak to others in person.

I have regular virtual meetings for my work, as does my wife; my son is taking online classes from school through which he can directly interact with his teachers. I can call, text, or message people anytime I like. I can still interact.

But none of this replaces the need we have for physical human interaction, and I worry that society as a whole may soon face a terrible choice: do we maintain our physical health at the expense of our mental health, or do we venture out and about, risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus, just to stay sane?

There are no easy answers at a time like this, but with COVID-19 seeming unlikely to disappear anytime soon, there may be some drastic changes that will have to be made, simply in order to protect the survival of human society. And what happens when the next viral outbreak comes? What happens when a plague of considerably greater deadliness comes around? Without sounding too apocalyptical about it, humanity may have never faced a greater threat to our overall societal well-being.

What are your thoughts? How will we survive this, mentally and physically? And what do you think the long-term prospects for our culture and civilization are?