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Stay at home but socially connected

We humans certainly are social creatures and always find ways to nurture our need to be part of a bigger whole. This ability will carry us through this difficult time.

Kirjoittajat:

Published : 07.04.2020

Social distancing is the word of today in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The word comes up on your social media feeds, the headlines of almost every newspaper scream it, and you talk about it with your friends.

Social distancing means avoiding contact with other people. It entails avoiding large and small gatherings as well as non-essential use of public transport and, for example, working remotely. In the current coronavirus outbreak, social distancing is highly demanded and valued – it is viewed as the best cure for today’s plague.

In this current state of affairs, do I dare to say that we should not talk about social distancing at all? Before you become distraught, please let me explain myself. I have a long-standing research tradition backing my argument.

We need social connectedness

First, it is an acknowledged fact that we humans are social creatures. We crave for social connections and have evolved to live in social groups. These groups fulfil one of our basic needs: they provide us psychological home by shaping our identities, giving us a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging. In scientific terms, groups allow us to build our social identities. Groups in which we belong provide us with psychological sense of “being one of us”.

Second, this feeling is crucially important for our well-being. A growing body of research shows that social identifications – belonging to groups of people – strengthen our well-being and protect us against both physical and psychological health disorders. Indeed, it is apparent that social isolation has severe health threats for us humans.

You might claim that alone these two arguments are not enough: It might be important for us to belong to social groups but in this exceptional situation the direct health effects of coronavirus weight more than our habitual need to belong to groups. I agree with you.

Technology enables social connectedness even from distance

However, let’s think about the essence of social distancing. It is avoiding physical contact with other people. When talking about social distancing we seem to have forgotten the technological developments that increasingly enable social encounters without being physically present.

There is plenty of evidence showing that we can build sense of connectedness and shared identity also remotely. This might be more challenging than in traditional face-to-face encounters. Still, in some instances we may even have stronger feelings of connectedness with people we have never physical met, but only have chatted online. Internet, videos, AR and numerous applications enable us to build communities of people who share similar interests. In addition, they allow us to experience the psychological presence of our team mates or family members even remotely.

Physical distancing instead of social distancing

That is why I argue that it is actually physical – not social – distancing that is required. Despite the physical boundaries that we have been forced to build around us, there is no need to feel socially isolated or distanced. On the contrary, the current crisis creates a huge amount of uncertainty and fear that no individual is able to resolve on his or her own.

We need each other. We need the spirit that we will tackle this together. None of us is alone, we are in this together. A delightful appearance of this spirit can be seen, for example, in joining hand-clapping or singing national anthem on the balcony during lockdown, choral singing online, having social evenings with friends via some video application, having unofficial work group coffee breaks online (if you are looking for tips how to do this, here are some), or inviting crowds to participate in teddy-bear hunts.

We humans certainly are social creatures and always find ways to nurture our need to be part of a bigger whole. This ability will carry us through this difficult time. So, please do not socially distance ourselves – let’s do this only physically. Stay at home – and still socially connected.

Some further readings:

Dery, K., & Hafermalz, E. (2016). Seeing is belonging: Remote working, identity and staying connected. In The impact of ICT on work (pp. 109-126). Springer, Singapore.

De Simone, F., Li, J., Debarba, H. G., El Ali, A., Gunkel, S. N., & Cesar, P. (2019, March). Watching videos together in social virtual reality: An experimental study on user’s QoE. In 2019 IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (VR) (pp. 890-891). IEEE.

Fiol, C. M., & O’Connor, E. J. (2005). Identification in face-to-face, hybrid, and pure virtual teams: Untangling the contradictions. Organization science16(1), 19-32.

Haslam, C., Cruwys, T., Haslam, S. A., Dingle, G., & Chang, M. X. L. (2016). Groups 4 Health: Evidence that a social-identity intervention that builds and strengthens social group membership improves mental health. Journal of affective disorders194, 188-195.

Krämer, N. C., Lucas, G., Schmitt, L., & Gratch, J. (2018). Social snacking with a virtual agent–On the interrelation of need to belong and effects of social responsiveness when interacting with artificial entities. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies109, 112-121.

Chayko, M. (2014). Techno‐social life: The internet, digital technology, and social connectedness. Sociology Compass8(7), 976-991.


The author of this text works as an RDI Director for Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. She holds a doctoral degree in organizational psychology and leadership. She has done research and published in the areas of social identifications, leadership, flexible work and virtual collaboration.