Lockdown learning: #1 Social unsociability

A short series of 2 minute observations …

We are only just over 40 days into ‘lockdown’ and yet already there are new routines established by many people on furlough, home-working, unemployed or retired. Additionally we see new customs from queuing to enter shops, respecting one-out one-in policies, one way systems for walkers etc etc.

I want to call out just one of these changes in behaviour. It indicates the strength of our social instinct – something which historically our public policies and economics have sometimes ignored.

We see it when we go out for our exercise and choose to walk.

One minute people are walking towards you. The next they have swapped pavements to avoid you. Families are spread over the pavement and then suddenly younger family members or dogs are corralled to avoid interrupting your stroll. Perhaps my favourite is the dance that we sometimes do at ten paces when we seek to work out who will take which side of the pavement to pass.

So many of these actions result in a smile, an expression of thanks or a greeting or a comment or brief conversation; things that were pretty rare prior to March 23rd in our neck of the woods.  

As we are forced to socially (or in reality – physically) distance we seem to have generated an equivalently strong desire to engage with others, acknowledge and connect and recognise them. Hence the popularity (and increasing length) of the Thursday evening applause when for many they are talking with neighbours for the first time in years, the emergence of street WhatsApp groups and local offers of help.

In a tangible way, going for a walk has become a lot less isolated and more sociable than it used to be – even though you stay farther away from others in the process. It feels much friendlier than it did and there is a greater sense of being part of a society. At the very moment when we are in the midst of being terrifically antisocial by avoiding people, we are reaching out to connect with them and recognise not just their presence but also their support in upholding this new social etiquette. 

That is something very new for most of us. In our age of ‘expressive individualism’ (to use Robert Bellah’s famous term) we seem to feel the need to appreciate the actions of others, to modify our behaviour for others and to act in a way that recognises our interdependence and desire for the welfare of others. 

Might we not quite be wired in the way much of public discourse suggests? 

Could this new norm even last beyond the lockdown?