The blessing and curse of the English language is the multitude of choices, the sheer magnitude of the word bank. My favorite professor at Wilkes University said that there was an expression for almost everything—if you had the right vocabulary. There is a powerful sense of control when you can say exactly what you mean. I remember specific instances I learned that two words were not interchangeable. For instance, one might feel anxious but not nervous. A statistic can be accurate but not precise (and vice versa). If you start a sentence with due to, since, or because, you will mean three different things. You have less water but fewer bottles of water. OK, I’ll stop there.
Proposal 1: Let’s replace the term Social Distancing with Physical Distancing. If, like me, you are fortunate enough to be social distancing, I advance that you are not actually social distancing. Think about it. If you have access to Wi-Fi and a smart device, have you been socially distant from people this spring? Or have you been physically distant? All of the interactions that I listed above were virtual, but they have certainly been social. Consider some definitions of social: “Related to activities in which people meet each other for pleasure” and “An informal gathering organized by members of a particular group.” To me this sounds like most of the interactions I have had. Further, I’ve been connected to people I do not normally interact with. I’m chatting online with friends every other week that I normally see once a year. Case in point. Over its 15-year history, how many times has my fantasy football league done a video-chat? Twice. And they’ve both been in the last month.
The point may be that if we are lucky enough to be able to remain physically distant—but connected—we should embrace it. There are lot of people who do not have the ability to practice physical distancing. Essential employees in hospitals, food delivery, the postal service, etc., are quite literally not able to. Their work brings them in close physical proximity with people whether they want to or not. I would argue that these individuals might actually be the only ones unintentionally having to practice social distancing. Given the long hours and exhaustion, these frontline workers are more likely to be worn out when they finally do get home, leaving less personal time to connect with friends and loved ones (even remotely).
So when we are having a virtual cocktail with some friends in a Zoom meeting, I propose a new norm: are engaging in physical distancing—not social distancing.
Proposal 2: Let’s replace Self-Isolation with Social-Solidarity. Quick, How many Facebook friends you have? How many Instagram followers? I’m guessing it is a huge community of people. Now, do you feel isolated from them? Do you feel deserted by or detached from them? Or do you feel like you have a common interest, a mutual goal, a feeling of unity and harmony with these people? If the latter, I suggest you are not isolated from them but rather than you are in solidarity with them. Again for those of us physically staying at home, we are working together to accomplish a shared objective. Sure, we are acting alone, but we are not in self-isolation; we are acting in social solidarity for the collective good.
Words are important tools, and the ability to properly employ them is a hallmark of our species. In fact, some anthropologists suggest language is what first defined mankind as we think of it today. Just think about how an engaging book makes hours go by unnoticed, or how an inspiring message at the right time can change your perspective, or how people and markets react based on the turn of a presidential phrase. Our words have weight, even gravity. They have the ability to influence, and so why not use it for good?
So these are my suggestions. First, let’s do the same things we’ve been doing, but let’s attach some goodwill to the terminology. From now on I am practicing physical distancing as a part of social solidarity with the rest of the people on this planet. Second, when life returns to something resembling normal, why not take the positive pieces of this and carry it forward. Keep the monthly FaceTime session with your high school friends, the weekly Zoom family happy hour, the Saturday virtual game night, and the video-chat with your fantasy football league. We’ve learned to be socially-active while physically distant. We’ve learned to embrace solidarity with our neighbors across the street and across the globe. These skills will remain valuable even when we are not battling a pandemic.