Op-Ed: Social Distancing feels weird, but we should do it anyway

The Op-Ed below was published in the Greenville News, Saturday, March 21, 2020 (p. 8A). Read full text online here.

Social Distancing feels weird, but we should do it anyway.

The global pandemic of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has called into question everything our culture has taught us about how we space ourselves in relation to other people. By now, we’re all familiar with the concept of social distancing. But, why is social distancing so hard for us to do?

The answer is that it goes against every cultural norm of communication we have adopted over our lifetimes. The simple action of declining to engage with each other at personal distance feels awkward because it’s not what we’ve been trained to do with people we like. It’s what we’ve been trained to do with people we don’t like.

Here’s what proxemics – the study of how humans use space – tells us about this learned behavior:

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All of us humans constantly do the work of negotiating the physical distance between ourselves and other people. When we see someone who looks scary or unusual to us, we subconsciously move farther away from them. When we see someone who appears attractive or trustworthy, we move closer. When we take these actions, we are negotiating space and distance, often without even realizing what we are doing.

Back in the 1960s, Edward T. Hall described four distances that we place between people: public, social, personal and intimate. When we see people we know and trust, we invite them closer to us. This typically brings them across our boundary from social distance (6-12 feet) into personal distance (1.5-6 feet, or within arm’s reach). We like to bring people into personal distance with us. It feels comfortable and friendly, and it is.

And, just for the record, humans aren’t the only ones who prefer nicely spaced but still personal distances. Next time you see birds on a wire, look at how closely and evenly spaced they are. Hall also observed this behavior among pigs feeding at troughs.

When people move into our personal space, typically, we’ve invited them to do so. That invitation is reflected in the fact that we don’t back away when a friend or neighbor crosses the boundary from social distance to personal distance (at about 6 feet). We accept the invitation.

We really notice personal distance when a stranger or unknown individual crosses that boundary from social distance into personal distance. Immediately, we might take a step back or to the side, or we might verbally address the barrier-breaker with a hefty “watch-out” or a subtle “excuse me.” We decline the invitation.

Here’s the thing about social distancing. When we try to create social distance with our friends, that action feels like we’ve declined an invitation – an invitation to friendship, to knowing and being known, to caring and to camaraderie.

Social distancing as love

Public health officials worldwide have called on all of us to do our part to create social distance. It is awkward. It seems weird. Because it feels impersonal. Social distancing feels like rejection.

But we need to do it. In a public health crisis, social distancing is not an act of rejection. It’s not even an act of fear. Social distancing is an act of love.

Social distancing is a concern for our friends that says, “If I have coronavirus, I don’t want to spread it to you. And, I know you feel the same about me.”

We can conquer the feeling that it’s unfriendly by reminding ourselves that social distancing is the friendly thing to do, at this time, for now.

We can do it, if we work together.

Kids and social distancing

We don’t learn how to discern social distance from personal distance until we age and our culture overtakes our natural tendency. Anyone with kids has observed that kids could care less about personal space. They touch everyone and love hugs and wrestling and cuddling.

When we participate in social distancing, our children don’t yet understand the boundaries and they can’t be expected to enforce them.

About the time we go through puberty, we start to recognize the cultural expectations about distances between people and we pick up on the difference between social space and personal space.

In our house, we are giving lots of hugs and staying in close personal distance to one another. But outside of it, we are not. And that requires some supervision on our part. That means that even though my backyard might be the typical neighborhood hangout for all the kids (which we love!), it can’t be for now. Hopefully, by the summer, it will be again. Send the neighborhood kids home to their houses. Go on walks. Wave to the neighbors. Have virtual playdates. Take bike rides. But maintain social distance from our friends. Social distancing practices require that our children engage in it with us. And even though it feels unfriendly, social distancing might be the friendliest thing we can do.

John A. McArthur, Ph.D. is an associate professor of communication studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of Digital Proxemics: How technology shapes the ways we move, (a book that might be even more applicable today than it was before the global pandemic) and numerous journal articles about our use of space and place. Contact Dr. McArthur at john.mcarthur@furman.edu

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