‘Covid over? But I liked social distancing!’

Not everyone’s in a hurry to get back to normal.  How the pandemic may have caused some people to reassess their social lives – and found it wanting.

Covid restrictions have been lifted here in the UK. For the vast majority of people, this couldn’t have come soon enough. However, there are those for whom the prospect of getting back to ‘normal’ fills them with a sense of foreboding. The most obvious example being the clinically vulnerable and those in other at-risk groups, who remain susceptible to getting seriously ill with the virus.

I wonder about another group of people though – those who dread the relaxation of social distancing rules, not because they worry about getting sick, but because they worry about having to be social again. 

Social distancing was key to fighting the virus. We had to stay apart in order to stop too many people getting sick. But whilst social distancing was good for our physical health, it was nothing but bad for our mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Or so we were told. ‘Humans are social animals!’ was a cry that often rang out in those early days of the pandemic, with concerns raised that a reduction in social contact could only be anathema to our very being.  

So naturally, the lifting of social distancing measures has been unequivocally and ubiquitously hailed as a Good Thing. It’s been assumed that we would all – naturally –  be looking forward to socialising again, reconnecting with friends and co-workers face to face, IRL, skin to skin. 

But what if those months in lockdown made some people realise that their pre-pandemic social life wasn’t really all that? 

“‘I don’t want to ‘catch up for a coffee’ with anyone anymore… I’m not interested in this kind of like, minute City neoliberal forced way of interacting with people in some kind of like, transaction where you catch up with people you’ve not seen for like eight weeks because everything’s so expensive and you don’t have any time’”.

Quote taken from the book, Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe

The above quote I think speaks to how our social engagements can sometimes feel like nothing more than an obligation; another thing to tick off the to-do list; a chore, even. 

For all the talk about how social connection is vital to our wellbeing, it’s also worth considering how, in some ways, it might also do us more harm than good. 

Some of our relationships may require a significant amount of emotional labour. We find ourselves continually attending to another person’s needs, only for our own to go unmet. Some of our relationships can efface us. With certain people we find it necessary to wear a mask, to keep up appearances, to be the person they expect us to be. There are social situations in which we are unable to express ourselves, to be ourselves. 

Then there’s the fact that socialising can be exhausting, as well as boring –  even with those we like and love. It can also be awkward and anxiety-inducing. Some social occasions wind up being nothing more than ‘forced fun’ – with everyone pretending to have a good time, because they feel they ‘should’, or because they’re more focused on partying (performing) for their Instagram feed, taking selfies, self-conscious, detached from the moment. 

All of which is to say, that whilst social distancing undoubtedly had a negative, even downright detrimental impact on many, I reckon for a fair few folk, it could have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. 

The pandemic brought our social lives to an abrupt halt. All of a sudden we were no longer able to do the usual Friday nights down the pub. The fortnightly visits to mum. The office Christmas lunch. The coffee catch-ups. 

Being severed from the usual social rituals and routines may have provided an opportunity for some people to reassess those rituals and routines. What did they genuinely miss doing, and what had become just that – routine? Convention? A going-along-with-things because that was easier, to prevent hurt feelings? 

Cut off from their usual social contact, the pandemic could have led people to re-assess certain relationships; to realise just how contrived, or toxic, or meaningless some of their social interactions were. 

And rather than being overcome with feelings of boredom or loneliness as a result of not being able to socialise, perhaps some folk found that they actually liked being alone; that it wasn’t as scary as they’d thought, and that solitude  actually quite suited them.

They didn’t have to put on the usual face, keep up the same dates; instead the restrictions on social mixing gave them some much-needed time to themselves; greater freedom even, to be themselves. 

Not everyone will be in a hurry to pick up where they left off pre-pandemic. Not if it means resuming a social life they’ve realised they no longer want or need. 

Some people, rather than wanting to return to normal, to head back out to the same old pubs with the same old people, might instead be looking to trim back their social schedules. To cut certain people off. To spend more time alone. 

To remain (somewhat) socially distant. 

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