We may criticize technology for the overabundance of rapid and often superficial connections we have grown accustomed to in recent years, but the reason that we are so drawn to them is our innate desire to connect. We are, after all, social creatures. Yet, no matter how much fun it is to rack up social media 'likes' and post comments in a feed, the feeling is actually very temporary and only skims the surface of the deeper social connections we typically engage in throughout the day. So how are we supposed to find meaningful connections while social distancing, especially when social distancing alone?
As human beings, we are wired to connect. Bonding with others calms our nervous system and assures us that we are not alone in the world. In real life, when we listen to someone speak, we hear the sound of their words, but we also hear the rhythm, cadence, humor, and emotions that come along with them—things that are only hinted at through emojis. Seeing faces is much the same. A large percentage of what we communicate is done through non-verbal cues that our brain interprets through facial expressions, body postures, hand gestures, pauses, movement, etc. Face-to-face communication also mirrors back to us our own presence in the exchange, activating our feelings and validating our presence, which is why our social health is so important.
Even those of us who might find ourselves more introverted than extroverted and who can spend long hours engrossed in books or writing or other solitary pursuits, eventually need to break out of our bubbles. But social distancing creates a conundrum of how to go about doing so. Turning on the computer or checking the phone invites the deluge of urgent news and social media posts which tend to heighten rather than relieve our anxiety and can easily make us feel overwhelmed.
With a little planning and balance, we can use technology to create better social connections while physical distancing. Here are some ways to get started.
Share lunch with a friend or family member over video chat. When you are done, turn off the computer and don’t be tempted to hop onto another platform. Sign off and let the feelings linger for a while as though you had just returned home from an outing together.
Reach out to someone you haven’t talked to in a while and reconnect. Catching up with old friends can help us bond and broaden our immediate interests and concerns. Even if you do this by email or IM, it will feel more meaningful to send and receive personally crafted messages than simply liking social media posts.
Manage your devices. Turn off the alerts and pop-ups for email and social media. It will keep until you are ready for it. Like the usual advice to designate one part of your physical space for work and another for rest, be strategic in how your use your devices so that work, news media updates, and socializing feels like different spaces and experiences.
Cultivating strong social connections is an important step in maintaining good mental health for you and others. If you are interested in more ideas, check out these recent articles and resources:
And in those necessary moments when you are out and about and respectfully distancing, remember that a smile at six feet speaks volumes.
Charlotte Bauer is the Assistant Dean for Communications and Strategic Planning in the Graduate College. She holds a BFA in studio arts and worked many years in advertising before earning a PhD in medieval Art History. Forever curious about how we create, transmit and preserve knowledge, her research interests include the history of the university and all things related to the history of the book. In addition to her work in the Graduate College, she teaches and volunteers with the Education Justice Project.