Sociologist Eric Klinenberg follows up his New York Times op-ed with comments in the Chicago Tribune explaining why “physical distancing” is a better term than “social distancing”:
“A lot depends on us making this change,” Klinenberg said when I reached him by phone Friday at his home in New York. “To ask for ‘social distancing’ implies that we should go home and close our doors and turn our back on the people around us. That’s precisely wrong. We need social connections, social solidarity, more than ever before. It’s feeling social solidarity that leads us to lend a hand to the most vulnerable people around us – the elderly, the homeless and those who are doing what we now call essential work, who are at enormous risk.
“Of course we need physical distancing to prevent the virus from spreading,” Klinenberg said. “It’s transmitted through physical contact. It’s not transmitted through social bonds. And it’s social closeness that will help us help each other through this and help us rebuild. So if we stigmatize social life through our terminology, if we praise individualism and just taking care of ourselves, we run the risk of making the problem even worse.”
Perhaps there are two ways to approach this. First, changing the term could indeed matter. Second, with or without a changed term, the appeal to individualism and private action in staying away from others could be a powerful one in a country that celebrates individualism.
At the least, Klinenberg’s call could push some people to pay more attention to their social interactions in a time when typical social interactions are discouraged and dangerous. Klinenberg’s earlier work suggests that social bonds are already tenuous in a number of communities. In normal times, it is relatively easy to engage in patterns that do not require much thought. When that normalcy is disrupted, continuing those regular patterns requires flexibility and new ideas.
And, it remains to be seen how social bonds continue after the time of COVID-19. Will normal social interaction occur? Will there be new precautions (such as no or limited handshakes)? Will some who sheltered in place for a long period continue in those patterns? The length of the new policies, interactions during COVID-19, and hard-to-predict social changes (spanning economics, politics, and social life) could all influence future interactions (including the possibility that social bonds will be strengthened significantly after COVID-19 recedes).