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The Perils of Social Distancing

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SOCIAL CHEMISTRY
Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection
By Marissa King

Reading Marissa King’s “Social Chemistry” during a pandemic is an unsettling experience. King, who wrote her book well before Covid-19 hit, details the dangers of not meeting in person: “After two months without an in-person gathering, feelings of closeness between family members dropped by more than 30 percent. … After that, friendships go frigid.” She writes of the positive effects of brief moments of “high-quality” connection in public spaces: “Spending a couple of minutes casually interacting with a stranger or barista can make us as happy as spending the same amount of time with our romantic partner.” And of the power of touch: “While we often think of hugs as a way of catching colds, they can be surprisingly good at preventing them.” As companies like JPMorgan Chase reconsidered office space altogether and Dr. Anthony Fauci called for the end of the handshake, it’s hard not to read this book as a eulogy to a previous age.

And yet, King’s work is one of a number of new books that emphasize the importance of social interaction at this moment of social distancing. (Others include Mia Birdsong’s “How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community,” Vivek Murthy’s “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” Rachel Wilkerson’s “The Art of Showing Up,” Casper ter Kuile’s “The Power of Ritual” and Christie Tate’s “Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life.”) It’s telling that the ink on these manuscripts was dry well before governors were issuing stay-at-home orders. Physical distancing may be new, but social distancing is evidently a pre-existing condition.

It turns out, most of us are social nincompoops. We’re friends with whoever happens to be seated next to us at work or school. We go to happy hours to meet new people but end up talking to the three people we already know. We ghost our friends rather than face difficult conversations. And these seemingly small choices, taken together, have a huge impact on our life outcomes.

King calls on us to be intentional not just with our individual relationships, but with our networks. She says that we conflate networks with networking. “While the term networking may evoke moral sentiments … networks themselves are simply structures,” she writes. And the ways these simple structures are set up, whether we like it or not, lead to very different end results.

We can’t avoid networks. We’re all a part of them and they shape our realities. They’re also not inherently good or bad. Schools that design structures forcing students to interact with different groups, through scattered seating assignments, make cliques less ubiquitous. Women are more likely to benefit from formal mentorship programs than men, because of the gendered nature of informal networks.

How might we use King’s insights to shape our new existences in the age of Covid? If we know it takes employees an average of three years to determine whom to trust, can we design remote work differently to account for that? If people need about 50 hours to move from acquaintance to friend, how might colleges navigate social life when there are no dorms or physical seminar rooms? If touch helps boost feelings of social support, how do we replace the handshake with a nonphysical exchange that still signals care?

As churches debated holding physical services, Nate Pyle, a pastor, tweeted: “I want to gather again too. But if we are fighting to hold on to what we had … maybe the form of our gathering needs to shift … maybe this is our diaspora moment; a moment of re-engaging the world around us as we were meant to do. Maybe.”

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