How Social Distancing Is Re-inventing Our Social Species

There are ways to open up, stay social, and still have a healthy populace

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Empty train cars, Christyl Rivers

We went to a local park yesterday, and I noticed most people were not wearing masks. This is somewhat disconcerting in an area where recently there was an outbreak cluster.

As we were leaving, we noticed two non-masked ladies.

“You’re still feeding the cats even after the park is closed?” My husband asked, as we approached.

“Of course, we are,” one lady retorted, sounding a bit defensive. She was working for a local charity that cares for homeless cats. This charity faces a fair amount of hostility in the public eye, already, because not everyone appreciates the cat colonies.

In a ‘normal’ world I would have walked up to her and stood just a foot or two apart to show that we are non-threatening, curious, and friendly.

But in this situation, we stood approximately fourteen feet apart, not the social norm with which our species evolved. We are a social species. The present pandemic unmasks this truth every day.

We chatted.

The tension lifted. She came to realize that although we wore masks and she did not, we were not trying to scold, or school her, in any way. We were, in fact, just wanting to thank her for her work. By the time we left we felt like old acquaintances, if not friends.

Asking why social distancing is wrong is a bit of a trick question. As it is presented, keeping away from other people in a pandemic is wise. People, as we know, are the primary vectors for infection.

However, we should be calling this practice physical distancing.

Physical distancing is the right thing to do. The term is more accurate for what we are trying to accomplish. We certainly don’t want to encourage social distancing, because social means interacting with other people. Creating bonds, both loose and tight, is especially crucial for our mental health in troubled time.

Social distancing is the wrong thing to do precisely because we must be pro-social, to get through this episode of human change.

The nice cat-woman, and I, found ourselves in an awkward situation. There are many these days, and they are not always so easily diffused.

In the short run, to protect our physical health, we have had to adapt all manner of new habits.

But none of these habits should have to threaten your manners, which are social cement.

When we are outside of our homes, it can be socially awkward, but bear in mind that everybody is asked to perform the same tasks. This makes it socially popular, in a sense, because our human reactions are shared. We may have to adjust our masks, but it’s okay to make eye contact with a person approaching you.

This gesture makes a social statement:
“I am aware of you, not ignoring you.”

You may have to wipe off your hands, or phone, after making a transaction, or touching a handle, or cart, but everyone else understands why you are doing this.

When we have to use public transport, we have to make every effort to be polite and patient. Realize that everyone else on the subway, or train, or plane, is required to do the same. There have been incidents where people (for whatever reason) have been rude or insulting to others of Asian ancestry, or not wearing a bandana, or mask “correctly”, or when others get too close. Please bear in mind that everyone is much better off by not making a socially awkward situation, an even more uncomfortable one.

Our manners and efforts to be socially graceful are of great value. This is a transitional time where we all are learning to adapt and change with an uneven set of new requirements, and new rules that ebb and flow.

It’s been widely noted during this wave of the COVID 10 pandemic, that people are getting to know their neighbors, interact with strangers, and be, in many cases, more progressively social than they were before.

Sociologists and psychologists have taken note that in our previous public spaces, we often remained isolated mentally. We were often absorbed in our devices. Sometimes, we kept socially distance due to our perception of role, or class, or gender, or what is often called identity politics. We may have been packaged like sardines, but we didn’t know whose shoulders we were rubbing, and we didn’t have a social mandate to interact much.

In the pandemic, there is evidence this is changing. People are much more aware of their personal space. They are looking up, seeing others, assessing behavior, and even smiling at one another more.

Maybe after months of isolation, this is just our better social selves seeking connection.

The difference now, of course, it that all of is done while ‘keeping our distance.’

It appears that with new expectations, even given that they are choppy and always changing, we are opening up socially because we are all going through very similar challenges. We are socially connecting in ways where just a nod expresses: “Yeah, I understand what you’re feeling, now.”

But how can we spur economic sustainability while living with uncertainty, in the age of pandemics, and still remain social creatures? It is a huge task to be continually updating new habits in unfamiliar circumstances. There are many answers, because we have many minds who are at work on the problem.

For example, many people find that they just don’t feel safe from disease on the subway, or bus, or even when they take a Lyft, or Uber.

We may still be strangers on a train, but if we work hard it can be a more socially proactive train that drives us toward cooperation, collaboration, and compassion.

There is speculation, and with good cause, to think that electric trains and transport for liveable cities will alleviate the present problem of overcrowded, and contaminating transport.

Air travel before was crowded, uncomfortable and very anti-social.

Long distance trains made available, however, could be inviting public spaces with plenty of space, and more time allowed for human connection.

For shorter distances, less polluting city train seats could be placed farther apart, and fitted with partitions. The same is true of restaurants, or social hangouts of any kind. Sidewalks could be wider, or have a green strip down the middle, visited by butterflies. More trees and parks could help beautify, even as they clean the air and draw people to social spaces. Co-Victory community gardens could connect people even while they boost the food network a little more securely. Public health features could be engineered into our daily lives.

Social behavior will change along with all new environments.

Because pollution, traffic, and crowding are now recognized as factors that exacerbate epidemics, we will work toward retrofitting networks, buildings and transport. New social behaviors will factor largely in this. For example, as working from home becomes more socially acceptable, all new protocols and expectations of workers will emerge.

Will you leave the kids downstairs while you work, or will the neighborhood nanny show up? Will you connect with a friend to arrange flexible shift work, or will you meet a whole new team?

Human beings, as part of our social nature, are inventive, and new standards will inevitably come into vogue to lubricate our social interactions. With the right amount of ‘socially accepted’ personal protection gear and habits, people will begin to ease into socially accepted norms. This will allow us to ensure one another that we are not jerks, or scolds, but we are still social creatures, just like them.

Although it is reckless to open up too soon, and without safeguards, there are ways to have people get to their jobs and while there, stay safe, both emotionally, and physically.

In days to come, I believe we will invent ever more innovative adaptations.

It just requires manners, patience, and our creative efforts to continually ease social tensions.

In other words, so long as we remember to stay human, and humane, we will adapt. We may even come up with wonderful new social norms that prove we can be not just a social species, but more comfortably social than when we alienated one another from just inches away.

Written by

Ecopsychologist, Writer, Farmer, Defender of reality, and Cat Castle Custodian.

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