Seeing Friends Face-to-Face Again Will Change Our Lives

Em Unravelling

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Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

Back at the start of 2020, when “Covid-19” was just a word on the news, the first glimpse I got of how seriously the world was taking it was when the first anti-pandemic measures began to be announced — 2m distances marked on shop floors, signs inviting customers to wear optional masks in cafe queues, and sanitizing sprays near the shopping trolleys.

But even with the requisite distances marked and explained everywhere, I didn’t give much thought to the actual meaning of the term “social distancing”. I don’t suppose anyone did. We were too busy making it happen.

Within weeks, though, it became very clear that the sort of regular, unnoticed, casual human-to-human contact we were all accustomed to was starting to be the thing we all missed. Yes, we missed hugging our elderly parents, or visiting our adult children, or hanging out on Sundays with our extended families. But there was another, more subtle human cost as well.

We missed Saturday-morning market crowds. We missed gathering with colleagues we barely knew for triumphant after-work drinks on Fridays. We missed weekly updates on the development of our favorite barista’s new puppy. We even missed the grunting, sweating dudes at the gym who hung out at the weight bench and offered casual unsolicited advice on protein shakes. We missed people whose names we had never learned, but who had been part of our landscape anyway.

Some people were surprised by what an echoing hollow this sudden, enforced isolation made in our collective psyche. Others, though, weren’t surprised at all. “We do not cope well with isolation,” said Oxford University’s Professor Robin Dunbar in the Sunday Times. “The effect of social interaction really is [dramatic] — not just for our happiness but also health, wellbeing… even how long we live.” Turns out, it’s powerful stuff, human interaction.

Study after study (such as the Movember Foundation’s research into loneliness in men) has established the primal need humans have for contact with each other and the benefit this has on physical as well as mental health. One large and well-respected study from the University of Utah even revealed that social contact and integration had as big an effect on recovery after strokes or heart attacks as the effect of giving up smoking. Scoring high on social scales can increase survival chances by up to 50 percent. This is the sort of statistic that really can’t be ignored.

Only — we’ve kind of had to ignore it for a while, though. For the sake of pulling the world through this pandemic, we’ve had to pull away from each other, holing up in our houses and seeing each other only on glitching screens. No wonder we’re all feeling out of sorts — it’s been going on for such a long time.

Lockdowns that last longer than six months will certainly start to have overtly noticeable effects. When you meet again, it won’t be quite like it used to be.

“A three-month lockdown may be frustrating and annoying, but is unlikely to destabilize a friendship seriously,” says Professor Dunbar in his Sunday Times piece. “We might be able to detect changes in the emotional quality of individual friendships, but the friends themselves might not yet actually have noticed. Lockdowns that last longer than six months will certainly start to have overtly noticeable effects. When you meet again, it won’t be quite like it used to be.”

No wonder whenever there’s a news-based meme-share about the “roadmap out of all this” on my Facebook feed, the loudest cheers and claps come from discussions about getting back to restaurants, or gathering for drinks at the pub, or watching films and sharing snacks each other’s houses. Even the quietest home birds among us are feeling the lack of connection with other human beings. We might not have thought we were social before all this began, but we can’t deny the animal need we have for the benefits even the most casual socializing brings us.

Not least, social contact is crucial to the building of effective communities. As humans, we work best together when we have a degree of mutual understanding and compassion. It’s the sort of interaction that is hard to foster over twenty-way Zoom or Teams meetings.

Working from home might be more normal for all of us going forward, but it’s unlikely ever to replace office-based work completely. At least, not for the sorts of firms that depend on collaborative cohesion between staff. It just doesn’t work as well when it’s done remotely, devoid of all face-to-face interaction.

So as we all start to tiptoe carefully through the vaccine-opened corridors and out of our Covid-19 bunkers into the sunshine of the “new normal”, it’s probably worth remembering two things.

Firstly, that we’ve all been in this together — it’ll feel awkward for all of us, at first, re-learning social cues and group hierarchies and remembering how to act in a workplace meeting that doesn’t come with a handy “mute” button or the ability to feign dodgy wi-fi when things get sticky. The first handshake, the first hug, the first crushing queue at the bar — those things are going to feel weird, but they’ll feel weird for all of us.

But secondly, we need to remember that one of the strongest glues in social bonds is simply time. Time spent with other people — learning how they react in given situations, learning how we react to them, learning their likes and dislikes — is how friendships are forged. That’s what we’d had before Covid-19 — we’d had time.

In the early Noughties, I once spent a whole summer doing data entry, tapping numbers into spreadsheets listing different laminate colors of kitchen cupboard doors in the stiflingly hot admin room of a busy factory near the sea. There was only one other girl in that office with me and I’d initially have said we had nothing in common at all, but after a whole summer, I knew she ate hot chocolate granules straight from the jar, loved dogs more than people, and liked the Bee Gees way more than any self-respecting twenty-year-old ought to do. By the end of the summer, we were doing aerobics classes together at weekends. Two years later, she invited me to her wedding.

We haven’t had that sort of time with each other over the past twelve months or so. None of us, other than clusters of people in essential roles, have had that sort of incidental immersion in each others’ lives. Even students haven’t been able to hang out in messy heaps in common rooms, playing computer games and drinking cheap coffee, and making friends for life.

As a species, we have to allow time to re-learn how to be all together again. Because, apparently, it’s life-saving stuff.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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