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20 words for a new world: Social distancing

20 words for a new world: Social distancing

I don’t think many of us were familiar with the phrase “social distancing” before the beginning of this year. Did it even exist before? If it did, it was known only to professional epidemiologists. Now it seems so familiar, as a phrase, that it’s hard to imagine a world in which we didn’t know what it meant.

As a phrase and in practice.

That hesitation before shaking hands.

Those absurdly widely-spaced queues.

That sense of each of us being a physical island.

To spend months viewing our fellow citizens as vectors of disease is an experience that will probably affect us for years to come.

There was already a tendency to mistrust those people we didn’t know personally in the largely anonymous urban spaces that most of us inhabit. The experience of Covid-19 seems likely, at a subconscious level at least, to push that tendency further still.

Yes, there is a sense of solidarity, but there is also a heightened sense that everyone we pass on the street is a potential threat. We give them a wide berth. It’s a sort of courtesy – we are a potential threat to them, too – but it’s also a way of saying “Don’t come near me! I don’t know who you are!”

This probably represents a bigger change among the tactile peoples of southern Europe than among their more stand-offish northern cousins, but even in the north there is a sense of etiquette in flux.

Will it have long-term consequences? It all depends how long the period of acute crisis lasts. If there are successive waves of infection so that these measures are in force for several years, then it’s hard to imagine that things will go back to exactly how they were before.

Though children might be the least affected by the actual disease, they will be the most affected by the new ways of interacting socially because they will have the least memory, or no memory at all, of how things were before.

So will Italians become more like the Dutch, the Dutch more like the Japanese, as we all move along the scale towards a more vigilant policing of our personal space, of the invisible force-field that surrounds each individual? And can we say that such a development will make us more extrovert? Probably not. In this respect it seems likely that we will become, if anything, more aware of our own personal boundaries and more inhibited about violating the boundaries of others, even with a hand on the shoulder or a peck on the cheek. We will develop more careful instincts. Of course, we will find new ways of communicating affection, though something will perhaps always be missing. In the English-speaking world it is apparently now the case that when you want to give someone a hug, instead of actually hugging them you say, “I wish I could hug you”. The words are well-meaning, but the actual physical contact, I feel, has something that they cannot replace.

Whole peoples change over time. The English used to have a reputation throughout Europe for their tactility – I’m talking centuries ago here, in Shakespeare’s time. Somewhere along the way they changed. Everything always changes, just sometimes faster than at other times.

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