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“Social spacing”, not “social distancing”: Deepening connections while staying safe

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads across the globe to create the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been requested to stay out of public spaces and reduce interpersonal contact to reduce the transmission of the virus. This process has the unfortunate name of “social distancing“, which has connotations of removing one’s self socially and emotionally as well as physically from the public sphere. Before modern communication technologies existed, those might have been unfortunate side effects of such a containment strategy. However, with all the methods available to us to stay connected across large gaps between us, I propose we call this effort:

Social spacing.

In this way, we emphasize that it’s the physical space between people we seek to minimize, not the interpersonal bonds we share. “Social spacing” entails a simple geographic remove from other people. It also invites people to become creative in using technological means to bridge the space between us.

How to stay faraway, so close

When using technology to stay connected, prioritize keeping deeper, meaningful connections with people. Use Skype or other video messaging to see as well as hear from people important to you. Talk to people on the phone to maintain a vocal connection. Use your favorite social media site’s individual messenger to keep a dialog going with someone. Have individual or group texts for select audiences of messages.

In these deep, close, personalized connections, it’s OK to share your anxieties and fears. Validating that other people are concerned or even scared can help them feel like they are grounded in reality. However, beyond simple validation, use these deep connections to plan out what to do, to take concrete actions to live the lives you want. To the extent possible, share hobbies or other pursuits together if you’re shut off from work or other personal strivings for success.

  • Move book clubs from living rooms or coffee shops to speaker phone calls or group Zoom sessions.
  • Find online or app versions of bridge, board games, roleplaying adventures, or other fun things you might do together in person – or find new things to do online.
  • Set an appointment with some friends to watch a show or movie on TV or streaming media. You can then have a group chat afterward to share your reactions. Then again, maybe you all would enjoy keeping the line open as you’re watching to comment along in real time!
  • Curate playlists on Spotify or other music sites to share with your friends to express your current mood or provide some uplift to each other.
  • Make a creative group so that you write novels, paint pictures, or pursue other artistic endeavors together.
  • Broaden your palate and share culinary adventures with your friends with social cooking sites or online cooking classes. Share your favorites with your friends, or have conversations as you cook to help debug recipes.
  • Exercise your body and share online workout videos or apps with your friends. Setting up a friendly competition might even prolong your activity gains after the pandemic passes.
  • Learn skills through shared courseware from Khan Academy, LinkedIn Learning, or other sources.

These kinds of personalized connections can be prioritized over broad social media posts. In that way, you have more of an influence over your audience – and you can ask for a deeper kind of support than a feed or timeline might provide. If you use social media, use language laden with nouns and verbs to minimize emotional contagion. Share information from trusted, reputable sources as close to the relevant data as possible. I recommend the University of Minnesota’s COVID-19 CIDRAP site for a transnational perspective.

When too many connections and too frequent news become too much

You might find that the firehose of information overwhelms you at times. If you find yourself getting more anxious when you watch the news or browse social media, that’s a good sign that you’d benefit from a break. As a first step, you might disable notifications on your phone from news or social media apps so that you can control when you search for information rather than having it pushed to you. Other possibilities include:

  • Employing the muting options on Twitter, snooze posts or posters on Facebook, or filter words on Instagram.
  • Using a timer, an app, or a browser extension to limit the time you can spend on specific social media sites.
  • Turning off all your devices for a few hours to really unplug for a while.

Through these methods, you can give yourself space to recharge and stay connected even as you’re socially spaced.

#BlackLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and radical empathy

Empathic conundrums
Empathic conundrums

Empathy is a multifaceted beast, and it can get us into trouble when social upheavals strike.

There’s a bunch of measures of empathy, but many of them make a distinction between cognitive empathy (being able to think like someone else) and emotional or affective empathy (being able to feel like someone else).  Within cognitive empathy, we often speak of perspective taking (the ability to put yourself and potentially adopt in another’s mindset) as a critical skill. In contrast, we often talk about empathic concern (feeling sympathy with or concern for those less fortunate) as an important part of emotional empathy.

When confronted with tragedy, we often extend empathic concern toward those most like us. This concern is associated with experiencing the same patterns of brain activity when seeing someone else (who is similar to you, or part of your ingroupfeeling sad as when feeling sad yourself. However, this isn’t typically the case for people who aren’t similar to you, or those who are part of your outgroup. Even chimpanzees have a hard time empathizing with other primates who aren’t chimpanzees. In fact, it’s often the opposite.

Specifically, people in your outgroup who also seem to have the capability to harm your ingroup are more likely to elicit smiles when they’re hurt and to be more likely to be volunteered to receive electric shocks. But how do we know who’s likely to harm people like you – your ingroup? Though researchers have sometimes used culturally normative definitions of such people in their work, I would argue it’s important to examine people’s own beliefs to assess this notion. For instance, the rising notion of “black privilege” suggests that whites have myriad opportunities stripped from them on account of racial preference. Conversely, lists of ways to avoid being killed by police circulate in the black community.

With such threats to different kinds of ingroups believed to be posed by specific outgroups, it’s extraordinarily hard to engage in emotional empathy with “the other side”, let alone engage in cognitive empathy. Going through the work of taking another person’s perspective isn’t likely when that person feels like a threat instead of someone with whom you might cooperate. To empathize with people who are different from us, we may have to take a view of all humanity as our ingroup. However, there are large individual differences in the ability to do this, and when one feels under threat, such radical empathy poses even bigger challenges. Even if such things could be taught, there appear to be interactions between genes and hormones related to empathy. Those who are more likely to empathize with their ingroups are more likely to be receptive to oxytocin (which is a hormone that’s more associated with ingroup bonding than universal connectedness), whereas those less receptive to oxytocin are willing to harm members of the outgroup to the degree their brains “want” to harm the outgroup.

So, what can we do to help empathy build between groups who view each other as threatening? Shared suffering may be the answer, coming together over shared tragedies to let pain bind closed the wounds of humanity. Failing that, empathic listening to both sides may also help, allowing people to express their pain or fears without judgment or defensiveness. In the wake of last week’s tragic shootings of two black men and five police officers, a black man offered free hugs outside the Dallas police department headquarters. The Dallas police themselves guarded the people’s right to protest peacefully. Perhaps emotional empathy can give rise to cognitive empathy.

Empathy is a challenge to us all, and it may have untoward consequences if we only exercise it toward those we perceive to be like us. In my own experience, I grew up playing the Police Quest series of games, and the narratives that Jim Walls spun affected me viscerally, allowing me to peer inside a cop’s life in a way that sticks with me still. Conversely, working at the Walk-In Counseling Center allowed me to hear the stories of people who grew up with very different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in ways I’d never experienced before and moderated my political beliefs. But each of these took years of work to fully set in for me, to let me see what both sides might be thinking – yet recognizing that my own empathy will be forever incomplete as a result of living outside of both black and police worlds. Society will not heal quickly from these wounds, and more than just emotional empathy will be necessary to do so.