How do we stay connected when we’re obligated to stay apart?

Up until a week ago, I’d never even heard the phrase “social distancing.”

This wasn’t the post I was planning on this week.  

I was really excited to share our second issue of Civil Squared on the theme of “work as therapy.” My team has posted two great podcasts (here and here) that explore how work connects us to civil society and provides meaning in our lives.

And then, as has happened to all of us in recent days, we realized our plans had to change. The podcasts are still posted and we’re still planning to bring you that issue at a later date. Right now does not seem like the time to focus on how work connects us to one another. Most of us are just trying to adjust to a new work reality (and still others are without work as a result of closures). 

Social distancing

Up until a week ago, I’d never even heard the phrase “social distancing.” Now, not only is it everywhere, we’re being told that, if we don’t practice it, our actions “could kill someone.”

Is it ok to go to the grocery store? Can I get my haircut? “Is it ethical to go to the gym?” (That one definitely appeals to the philosopher in me!) While this article in The Atlantic about the “dos and don’ts” of social distancing provides lots of practical guidance, it doesn’t do much to mitigate my concerns about the effects of isolating ourselves from one another for weeks (and possibly months).

My kids’ schools have done a fantastic job of getting distance learning plans into place quickly (my fifteen year old is across the table from me in a lecture as I type). I feel so fortunate that, in the midst of all this, they’ll be able to keep making progress.

But their sadness at not being physically present with their friends surprised me: they’re all so adept at staying connected with technology and, occasionally, when I see them in groups, everyone is looking at electronic devices and (I thought) ignoring each other. I figured that, out of all of us, teenagers would find social distancing to be the least disruptive. I was wrong.

Conversation and connection: two very different things

In her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT professor Sherry Turkle considers the effects of technology on conversations. She worries that we have “sacrificed conversation for mere connection” by moving so much of our lives online, and that, in the process, we’ve lost many of the benefits of face-to-face conversation:

It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood…[we’ve lost] conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. Yet these are the conversations where empathy and intimacy flourish and social actions gain strength. These are the conversations in which the creative collaborations of education and business thrive.

“Social distancing” means we’ll have to adapt how we have face-to-face conversations, which Turkle calls “the most human—and humanizing—thing we do.”

Civil Squared Live

At Civil Squared, we want you to stay safe and we want you to be able to engage in conversations where, as Turkle says, “empathy and intimacy flourish and social actions gain strength.” This is a difficult time for all of us, and we don’t want those conversations to put you or your loved ones at risk, but we also don’t want you to stop having them.

We’re experienced at using technology for our programs because we’ve been doing it for a long time to accommodate your busy schedule. Now, we’re going to put that expertise to use to provide opportunities for civil conversation throughout the coming weeks, even as we practice responsible social distancing.

Please join me and others on Wednesday, March 25th at either 12:30 pm or 7:00 pm (EDT) for Civil Squared Live: A Pop Up Conversation on “Connected, but are We Really Alone?” This is a live event that will be held online. We’ll consider, among other things, Sherry Turkle’s TED Talk  and whether technology makes us feel more or less connected, especially after a week of social distancing.

5 more links worth your time

  1. The Dying Art of Conversation,” The Knowledge Project Podcast – Author Celeste Headlee shares insights on the value of good conversations and how we can have more of them by refining our conversational habits. (Bonus: Here’s her TED talk with 10 tips.)
  2. The Mouth Is Mightier Than the Pen,” The New York Times – With our ability to have in-person conversations impaired, what can we do to ensure we’re having valuable, productive exchanges? Behavioral science experts note that vocal cues – even over the phone or a video call – can go further than the written word: “’Email is really good for sending a spreadsheet, but it strips out some of your humanity.’”
  3. Why Your Brain Needs Idle Time,” Elemental – “Social distancing” will mean more commitment-free hours at home for many of us. What benefits might this have for our brains, and, in turn, our conversations? Researchers found that this mental downtime “seems to facilitate creativity and problem-solving” at a higher level.
  4.  “The Dawn Of The Virtual Happy Hour,” Forbes – Meaningful civil conversations are immensely important, but so are ordinary day-to-day chats with colleagues and friends about our lives. Learn how people around the world are creating digital watering holes.
  5. Civil Squared Live: A Pop-Up Conversation on “Connected, but are We Really Alone?” – Join me on March 25th (at either 12:30 pm or 7:00 pm eastern) for a live, online discussion about the importance of face-to-face conversation and the value of preserving it while practicing “social distancing.” We’ll consider MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s work on how technology affects our ability to have meaningful conversations.

p.s. I hope you found this issue of our newsletter interesting and worthwhile! At Civil Squared, we are listening to you, and we want to know what issues you find challenging to discuss with others. If you’ve got a political, ideological, or philosophical issue you’ve been going over and over in your head, email me and I’ll work with my team to put together a list of articles, issues, and interesting points of view to share with you and others. – Jennifer