Social Closeness with Physical Distancing. That's What We Need.
March 16, 2020
Say "no" to social distancing. What we really need right now is "Social Closeness with Physical Distancing," or SCPD. SCPD, now that’s for me.
Many of us are rightly concerned about stress, depression, and anxiety that could be induced by social isolation during this global health crisis. I'm a college professor, and as we move to online teaching, my colleagues and I are building in at least some real-time, synchronous, meetings so students can have human connection. We plan to create fun interactive segments that may seem a bit off-track from our original course goals, but now are a necessity for our larger human goals of community and support. My colleague tells me her college-aged daughter told her today she is "disgustingly bored"—after only three days at home. Another colleague was feeling anxiety until she started making work-related video calls this morning, and then she felt much better.
And that’s just in my work life. I'm thinking about this in my non-work life too. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has cautioned that this extended time off from school is not a time for "free-for-all playdates." I'm already hearing my cooped-up teenage daughter wonder what she can do next (beyond remote schoolwork, books, videos, crafts, exercise). She was studying for the SAT today, literally had her book and calculator out on her desk, when it was canceled. So much for that activity. She and I are working on creating a calling system for connecting bored teens with isolated older adults in their homes or nursing homes. We can find the technology that works for the older adults: anything from landlines(!) to video calls. This could be a win-win.
We all need social interaction. It is part of the fabric of a “good” life. In 2018, doctors at McLean Hospital released a study of the mental health risks of social isolation. In my own anthropological research on the role of paid work in the lives of older adults in the United States, I have found the correlation between physical health outcomes and social engagement. The English poet John Donne figured this out in 1624, when he wrote (using the accepted gendered language of the day) that "No man is an island entire of itself… any man's death diminishes me…."
We're rightly being asked to create our own tiny isolated islands right now, for the greater good. The challenge before us is how to create "Social Closeness with Physical Distancing." SCPD.
SCPD, that’s for me. My small neighborhood friend group started our own SCPD network just last night, 3 days into our societal SCPD experiment. We had a Zoom videoconference party.
It took some preparation, as any party would. One of us delivered each household a tiny restaurant-purchased cake, from a local small business, with gloved hands and a message that "Nothing says social distancing like Bundt cake." We tested software in the afternoon and agreed on a call time.
Eight of us, four couples each sharing their own screen, logged on at 7 pm. Some of us wore costumes. One person wore a leprechaun cap. The one doctor among us wore a face mask (not N95, mind you) as a jaunty cap. Just like a real party, sort of.
We raised our glasses in cheers. We fiddled with custom backgrounds, cameras, and mics. Between laughter, someone said, "It's been 17 minutes, this is the worst-run meeting I've ever been to." We hadn't even gotten to the agenda. Yes, I had made an agenda. Old work habits die hard, and I’ve been using Zoom for work for years.
We even played party games. First there was a silly rendition of Pictionary with an online shared whiteboard. Then there was Mystery Presentation Theater, named after the old Comedy Central show (Mystery Science Theater 3000). I had created a slide show called "My Passion Project," which I shared with the group using a "screen share" function and then tasked a friend to deliver the presentation, sight unseen. "Caitrin, next slide please," he'd say, after building up to what might come next. After he presented a lengthy explanation of the social importance of birthday cakes, the next slide was a photo of a leashed dog, racing happily, tongue flapping, no owner to be seen. Thematic relevance? The impromptu speaker found one.
The games were fun. The giggling was abundant. There may have been some drinking, I can't be sure. Eight couples on four screens. We speculated that this party may have been more fun than being in the same room because we all had to pay attention to each other and couldn't have side conversations (though I think we did do some of that). One person noted that the next time we meet, we might have more screens because one of us will be in quarantine. Another noted that one of us might not be on the call at all if they're hospitalized. Or maybe one of us wouldn't be there because… one of us took hand to throat and swiped it across. Finis. We all laughed and were momentarily quiet until someone put an ocean background on their screen and started to surf.
It may have been a silly idea, but depression, loneliness, and the need for social interaction is real. We found a solution, and we plan on meeting again soon. Did it solve all our problems? No. Did it give us a rich sense of community? Maybe. Did I get to spend time with my friends in a safe and fun way? Absolutely, and, based on my post-party feedback survey (yes, I had to do that), our spirits were lifted! I hope we all can devise creative strategies to combat the consequences of social isolation. Who wants to come to my next SCPD party?
Professor of Anthropology
Olin College of Engineering
Needham MA 02492
[With thanks to John Sisson and Lauren Taaffe for feedback on an earlier version of this essay, and to Martin Wells for organizing our first Zoom party.]