“Social” versus “Physical” Distancing

While stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve come across multiple news articles claiming that calls for “social distancing” have been sending the wrong message to people. They claim “physical distancing” would be a much more accurate term to be using.

These articles make a good point. Does physically standing six feet away from other people have to mean being anti-social? True, restaurants and recreational meeting places are closed down; but does this necessarily mean that we have to close ourselves off, too, when we live in a technologically-driven society that allows for human connection and communication through virtual means? I would argue that it is possible to be physically distant without being socially distant, just as it is possible to be socially distant without being physically distant. (A sentiment Thoreau echoes in the chapter “Solitude”: “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.”)

While I was reading these articles, I couldn’t help thinking back to Walden, and what Henry David Thoreau has to say about isolation and socialization. For example, take a look at this quote from the chapter “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors”:

“Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveller; planted and tended once by children’s hands, in front-yard plots,—now standing by wall-sides in retired pastures, and giving place to new-rising forests;—the last of that stirp, sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive them and house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man’s garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a half century after they had grown up and died,—blossoming as fair, and smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil, cheerful, lilac colors.”

The above passage reflects on the fact that people often forget that their physical presence is not necessary in order to influence their environment and surrounding ecosystem–or, in the case of this blog post, their society. Physical distance, or even altogether physical absence, does not have to equal social absence. Even from far away, even from their computer screens, people have been finding innovative ways to influence their world in surprising, powerful ways. We are seeing this happen now, as things like remote learning, digital literature, and virtual communication step up to the plate to make up for in-person interaction. Of course, that’s not to say this transition has been easy on any of us. It hasn’t. Physical distancing does not have to eliminate socialization, but it certainly does discourage it and make it more difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, I think we can count ourselves comparatively lucky when considering that, centuries ago during past pandemics, things like online education, literature, and communication would not have been available to us whatsoever during a widespread lock-down situation.

On a final note, if there is one thing I have learned from studying the drafts and revision processes that Thoreau went through in writing Walden, it is that precision and accuracy matter when it comes to how we use language. As Thoreau knew all too well, the nuances of language are subtle yet powerful. On face value, “physical distancing” and “social distancing” might seem like synonyms; and perhaps they are. But even synonyms differ in connotation and meaning. These slight variations are what impact how language is interpreted by listeners/readers/language users. For this reason, taking a moment to reflect on the difference between “physical” and “social” distancing is worthwhile. The difference between the two may be a fine line indeed, but in the end it is all the difference to us as we power through this pandemic.

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