Between a Rock and a Hard Screen
In the time “BC” (Before Covid) we didn’t struggle to find ways to gather with friends and family in person. We are social animals, and we need connection with one another. Studies show that human touch calms our stress response, and has other benefits as well. Says Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and psychology professor at UC Berkeley, “[Positive] touch activates a big bundle of nerves in your body that improves your immune system, regulates digestion and helps you sleep well. It also activates parts of your brain that help you empathize.” 1
Today, we have had the majority of our opportunities for physical connection cut off by the need for quarantining and social distancing. For people sheltering alone or without an intimate partner, the shelter-in-place orders have been particularly difficult. And when we are out for a walk, or a weekly shopping trip, masks make reading facial features more difficult, and six foot distancing means hugs and other physical affirmations of connection are out of the question.
We long to return to our social relationships, with groups of friends, or coworkers. The tool that has made continued work possible, and continued contact possible, is virtual gathering apps. And yet, we want more. Coworkers congregating at the “water cooler,” salespeople feeding their extrovert tendencies in multiple daily meetings, construction managers poring over blueprints together – we long for these moments as a relieving break from our odd isolation in our homes with our screens.
The Amazing Screen
The ability to have video meetings to gather co-workers and family from disparate locations, to use breakout rooms, to have closed captioning for the deaf, to hold public meetings and town halls when we can’t safely gather in person – this is amazing. The technical tools and the widespread capacity to use them would astonish our younger selves. The recent rapid transition to widespread virtual work wouldn’t have been possible even twenty years ago.
If you have some portion of your employment that is spent in meetings, you are probably now on video calls. You may be playing games online, doing Zoom extended family dinners, sharing beers via FaceTime. Video meetings are an amazing help to our isolation – we can at least observe the friends and colleagues who previously inhabited our social landscape.
Virtual meetings do have their limitations. We are on two-dimensional screens, fixed in place physically. Eye contact is no longer part of the interaction, with now at best a vague sense that they may be focused on your image on their screen. Audio sometimes cuts out or distorts, or the picture won’t appear. The amazing screen is an imperfect solution for people craving in-person contact and connection. Virtual contact can be frustrating, and become a point of complaint.
A New Vocabulary
“In the absence of the regular social contact, shared talk is an important part of helping people feel connected to one another.”2 Our words take on enhanced importance when we have less ability to read and share body language, and a virtual communication explosion has brought new vocabulary. That vocabulary “…helps people articulate their worries about the biggest health crisis we have seen in generations. It brings people together around a set of collective cultural reference points – a kind of lexical ‘social glue.’”
Some people with “Zoom fatigue” might push off a social video chat after a long work day on their screen, you may see “covidiots” ignoring public health advice when you go food shopping, or opt to pour yourself a “quarantini” to drink sitting in your driveway while you talk across the street to a neighbor. And there will be more to come: with the recent introduction of “social bubbles” we are likely to get even more linguistic creativity.
“Happy with What You Have”
One particularly poignant phrase that has emerged in the course of coping with the coronavirus pandemic has us “in it together, apart.” Whether we are struggling with pandemic isolation, acknowledging systemic racism, or handling other personal challenges, we are in it together. We are rooting for one another, using our cars as mobile safe spaces, sewing masks for health care providers, and playing music for our neighbors. Our language and our shared experiences build compassion for ourselves, and for one another.
This is a hard moment; we are lucky in that it is temporary. We can be grateful not only to have the amazing screen that allows multifaceted collaboration, but also to truly appreciate all the little things about being human – together – that keep us sane.
1 Megan McLursky, “The Coronavirus Outbreak Keeps Humans from Touching. Here’s Why That’s So Stressful,” TIME, April 10, 2020.
2 Robert Lawson, “Coronavirus has led to an explosion of new words and phrases – and that helps us cope,” The Conversation, April 28, 2020.
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