Social Approaching in the Time of Social Distancing

Started the day off with a little news collection and saw this helpful tidbit from the NYTimes:

“Every single reduction in the number of contacts you have per day with relatives, with friends, co-workers, in school will have a significant impact on the ability of the virus to spread in the population,” said Dr. Gerardo Chowell, chair of population health sciences at Georgia State University.

It's good counsel. That's what we're all doing, right?!

We’re all trying to 'flatten the curve' and do our part in the war on the wily/unpredictable coronavirus. Everything is changing and we are permanently altered globally and locally (most certainly economically). We are all following the protocols and the WHO officials' daily cautions. We keep our stiff upper lip about it all. This morning we found out we have our first local case here in our city – not good.

But just for the record – we really hate this term 'social distancing.' It cuts against the grain of everything we believe in and we are going to have to be creative in the ways we increase our human connections in face of physical restrictions.

The last thirty years of the digital revolution has taken its toll on authentic human interactions. There are advantages of course – call centers/call-trees have accelerated efficiency (just press '3'), online banking has increased ease of access, and we can handle almost any business transaction online. We order our food on apps and pick up our groceries through apps. We talk to distant relatives and business counterparts around the globe through pixels and wifi connections. It's great.


We've lost certain bits, small pleasures along the way even as we've gained new ones. In a world where I can VENMO an 'online friend' in Tacoma, Washington from Texas for an order, I've increased expediency – but I lost a couple of key (very missable) contact points in the process. I don't know what that friend's penmanship looks like on an invoice. I didn't get to jot down the quirky remark included with the check. While I may call Ben my 'online friend' – he hasn't had coffee on my back porch, I don't know how hilarious his daughter is, and I won't ever know that he does that weird thing with his pencil when he isn't scratching in his notebook. (I'm guessing at that – how the heck would I know?!)

Socially, this 'new reality' we are facing only looks like it will create more distance. The epidemic we are facing is microbial, but the epidemics of loneliness, isolation, and depression have been wrecking our social fabric for years. We have got to figure out ways to maintain, increase, and heighten the quality of the experiences with other people. The companies, the non-profits, and communities who can figure this out will win big. Here's an example of what a company might be able to do to identify the human needs/fears of its customer base. If Casper mattresses, as a totally random example, recognized that more people are spending more time in their homes, sleeping more nights in their own beds than ever before [fewer business trips] and they also knew that anxiety is at an all-time high as people feel trapped in their homes, then Casper might hire Julie Andrews to record downloads of reassuring closing thoughts for the day and sing lullabies. The company could be addressing forces at work in the consumer base and creatively connect to their audience.

But this upheaval also offers us some surprising social approaching (that's our new way of talking about this) opportunities. Here are three surprising moments I've seen in the last three days.

1) An elderly couple began walking around my neighborhood – a couple I had never seen before. So, I approached them to introduce myself and it turns out that they have lived in my neighborhood for 9 years! We know almost everyone around here. They canceled their gym membership (fear of corona interactions) and have purposed to walk the neighborhood three times a day instead. We didn't shake hands and I stood about 8 feet away, but we now have new people who will stand and talk with us in the front yard.

2) Realized I needed to worry about a few neighbors who I knew to be alone or older than 65. I wanted to make sure they had sufficient toilet paper/food, so I went knocking on doors. This health crisis actually created a social approach that wouldn't have happened otherwise. Again – I stood at a great distance. It was great that the elderly folks assured me they would be just fine and that they had seen worse than this in their lifetime.

3) Stand in line at the supermarket, I observed those around me as they systematically allowed us to enter in controlled numbers. I have three teenagers and their food consumption means I'm at the store more often than I'd like to be. The social approaches/interactions happened with healthy distances, many people were conversing (and commiserating) about the madness of these days. People shared tips about where you could find this or that. Someone coughed and three ladies stepped forward with hand sanitizer from their purse as we laughed at their heightened preparation. There was a warmth even in the chaos – as nervous people recognized the needs of others and offered reassurance.

Across our city, almost all Sunday morning church services were canceled to stay compliant with the CDC recommendations. I can't think of any other time when this might have happened in the past, unless we mine history to find canceled services during the Black Death. The church has always been a solace in difficult days. Part of the New Testament text instructs the devoted 'to greet one another with a holy kiss' and while that isn't often practiced today, we now know that it really should NOT be a practice in a coronavirus outbreak. Almost every service involves communion, embracing, and close proximity during prayers. Things have changed and our interactions are fundamentally altered. How will we religious communities socially approach in our time of social distancing? We are going to have to get creative – quickly. The theologian John Calvin once wrote that he would prefer churches to congregate out of doors – in the fields and meadows and under trees, as Christ taught on hillsides rather than cathedrals. Well. Perhaps outdoor amphitheaters are now in play – hello sunlight and fresh-air?

Social approaching in the age of social distancing will be our greatest opportunity to innovate and remain connected to the fundamental aspects of our humanity. We will do better business and serve people's needs more effectively if we protect our humanity even as we protect our immune systems.

Bonus: check out THIS social approaching! Awesome.