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May 5, 2020

The Importance of Staying In Touch During COVID-19

The OI in spring.

The OI in spring.

Oren Oppenheim / The Chicago Maroon

Over the past few months, as the UChicago community has been uprooted by the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing has taken a toll on the psychological well-being of staff, students, and faculty, however, there are steps that can mitigate its effects, according to Nicholas Epley, a behavioral scientist at the Booth School of Business.

An important distinction to make under these quarantine restrictions is the difference between social and physical distance, Epley said. “Everyone knows you can feel alone in a crowd of people who are in very close physical proximity, but you can also feel very socially connected when talking on the phone with someone who might be on the other side of the planet.” Our emotional connections do not have to be limited by physical distance.

“Even though we are forced to be physically separated from one another, it doesn’t mean we have to lose our sense of connection. It requires a regular routine on our part,” he said. Professor Epley used the metaphor of a one-a-day vitamin, taken regularly to keep one’s health in check, to illustrate the importance of this daily emotional maintenance.“You need to maintain it regularly, even if you might be reluctant to start, and you usually feel much better afterwards than you might expect.”

Epley said that discussion of emotional topics rather than your typical “small talk” greatly enhances social connection. These benefits were found to be even greater when done in real-time (e.g. a phone call) as opposed to email or text. We do not have to feel pressured to limit ourselves to a specific set of mundane topics or escape any sort of more personal exposure, in fact, being more vulnerable and open with people prompts greater and more meaningful conversations and relationships.

Epley identifies “fear” as a major culprit of our tendency to isolate, as it can distort our expectations of an event. “If I think it’s going to be unpleasant to talk with someone, then I won’t try, and I’ll never find out that my expectation might be wrong.” This pattern of negative, asocial behavior can be broken,  “the same way that you overcome misplaced fears about anything: you try the action you’re somewhat afraid of and note how it goes” . Reaching out just once and generating a positive experience enables us to recalibrate our expectations of social connection for the better and makes us more likely to continue. This step, however, requires pushing aside our social anxieties and awkwardness. Other people’s hesitance to keep in touch does not necessarily stem from a lack of interest, but from an inability to escape these social pressures. Only one person is required to break this ongoing loop of alienation.

For making these conversation-starters, Epley recommends “think[ing] of an old friend you haven’t been in touch with for a while but would love to reconnect with.” Even if it doesn’t turn out the way you hope, “try it again, and then again, and at some point you will learn that people tend to be happy to hear from you when you reach out to them.” It is only through experience that we fully recognize the effects of our actions.

Epley stressed the point of finding “silver linings”. He said that young adults tend to feel more isolated during this quarantine period, and it is essential that they stay “especially vigilant about choosing to maintain their social relationships”. We should remember that “technology now makes it easier to connect with another person than any time in human history”, but it is only helpful when we use it wisely.

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