“Social Distancing” and the Hunger for Connection

“Social Distancing” and the Hunger for Connection


Beyond the massive economic disruption and health crisis, Covid19 has shined a spotlight on a core need essential to our humanity – connection. The 70’s band Three Dog Night’s hit song “One is the Loneliest Number” sums up the agony that we feel on a relational and cultural level, even as the fear (and reality) of the virus’ resurgence is among us. Social researcher, author, and speaker Brene Brown has said,

“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others,
it’s what gives purpose and meaning in our lives, and without it there is

The reality of suffering from the loss of this connection has left nothing untouched. From families to social events, from sports to concerts, from personal and cultural celebrations that are woven into the fabric of our collective lives, our souls are sickened as we try to deal with life without adequate levels of human interaction.

To add insult to injury, someone made the monumental mistake of coining the term “social distancing” to describe the risk management strategy essential to curb the transmission rate of the virus. Even though we intuitively know this refers to keeping a physical distance between people, the harm has already been done to our psyches. The weight of the words seep into our thoughts and distort the translation into words like isolation, disconnection, and solitary confinement.

Anthropologist Edward T Hall developed a theory called Proxemics to describe the nature and power of relational spaces he observed across cultures as people reached out to communicate and connect. These spaces are the following:

Four primary relational spaces that all cultures share:

• Public (12 feet +) – This is the space where we need more connection than in any other. This space is not person-to-person, but sharing a common experience. Think of a concert, a sporting event, a play or a show.

• Social (4-12 feet) – This is the space for small talk. Think of a class, a neighborhood barbecue, or a smaller social event where we are known and where we feel safe to share snapshots of who we are. This is the space where we are comfortable welcoming both friends and strangers.

• Personal (18 inches – 4 feet) – This is the space where we connect through sharing private experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Think of close friends, teammates, and social clubs. This is the space that is vital for our sense of belonging.

• Intimate (0-18 inches) – This is the space where we experience the warmth of human embrace. Entry for others into this space is reserved only for our closest friends and intimates. It’s the space where we have the freedom to let down our guard and share our deepest thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  Think of best friends, family members, and intimate partners.

I believe Hall’s research shines the spotlight on the power of human connection in all of these spaces in a way that helps us understand why we feel such profound loss and sadness in these days.  More importantly, his conclusions are instructive for how we can take the action needed to sustain and reclaim the human connection we’ve lost. 

Here are three of Hall’s action steps for maximizing connection in the relational spaces in our lives.

1. Let your words and your actions say “Welcome!” Instead of “othering” have the mindset
of “otherness” that embraces differences as a gift.

2. Present an authentic snapshot of who you are. Show up. Let others see you. Don’t add
a psychological mask underneath your physical mask.

3. Strive for healthy and flexible communication in every space you inhabit. It’s essential, in
every space, that we remain open, do not shut down, and continue to find creative ways
to find connection and belonging.

The catch phrase that is offered as the antithesis to “social distancing” is “We’re in this together!” The question is, “Are we?” If these words mean what they say, then it is essential to be reminded of the opportunities before us each day to embrace everyone in the relational spaces we have the privilege of interacting with. Much is at stake. The reality is, we need human connection like we need air to breathe. Without it there is suffering. Thankfully, we can choose to claim this moment, this hour, this day, to breathe life and connection into every space we inhabit, even if we are physically distant for a season.

Ritch Hochstetler, President and CEO at ULEAD

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