Social distancing has changed how we commonly interact with friends and neighbors

The following article, by Liv Osby, was published online by the Greenville News on Monday, March 23, 2020 and appeared on page 2A of the Greenville News on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

Social distancing.

Two words that have changed lives as we try to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

No large gatherings, we’re told. Keep your distance from others because being close is the way the virus is spread.

But that can be hard to do, said John A. McArthur, an associate professor of communication studies at Furman University who researches the issue.

“Social distancing is a technique we can use to push ourselves away from people… (to be) out of arm’s reach from other people,” McArthur told The Greenville News.

“But that feels so abnormal. We’re so used to showing that we care for people by moving closer to them. But the way we show care with social distancing is by not moving closer to them.”

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Research has described four personal-space levels that people use under normal circumstances, McArthur said:

Intimate distance: less than an inch to 18 inches
Personal distance: 1.5 to 4 feet
Social distance: 4 to 12 feet
Public distance: from 12 to 25 feet

The average social distance is 6 to 7 feet, McArthur said, and recent guidance from health professionals is that we should keep 6 feet apart from each other.

But because keeping people at social distance is what we typically do for people we don’t know or who might be frightening, and because inviting people into our personal space is what we do for friends and neighbors, social distancing feels like we’re not being friendly — even though it has important public health implications, McArthur said.

And because it’s different from our normal way of life, it feeds our feelings that we shouldn’t interact, and feeds our isolation too.

Social distancing includes keeping adequate space between you and others, at work and elsewhere. It’s meant to protect not only you, but the greater public as well, by eliminating transmission routes of the virus.

But social distancing is not necessarily about not interacting, McArthur said. It’s about interacting at a safe distance for public health, which is the responsible thing to do.

“The key for social distancing is that we don’t do it because we’re concerned about ourselves,” he said, “but because we’re concerned about spreading the virus to other people.”

The problem is that we can’t measure what would happen if we didn’t do social distancing, he said. And as a result, it can be tough to convince people of the necessity of doing it.

“But we all have to adapt temporarily,” he said.

McArthur also said it’s important for parents to school their children who love to hug and play about social distancing because they know less about personal boundaries.

“It’s important for parents to lead the charge,” he said. “It means things like we don’t have play dates at people’s houses. But you can walk and talk on (opposite) sides of the road.”

Liv Osby is the health writer at The Greenville News. She can be reached at losby@greenvillenews.com, 864-298-4422 or @livgnews.

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