I’m a high school teacher just a few days into “remote learning,” which will last for at least three weeks, according to the governor of Ohio. We’re not quite on house arrest, at least not yet, but it seems like overnight, the schools, restaurants, bars, public gyms, and churches where I live have all shut down. We’ve been instructed to practice “social distancing,” a phrase that I only begrudgingly accept.
Honestly, at first, I was super into the idea of lounging around in sweats and slippers, drinking my good pour-over coffee all day instead of the muck at school, and spending plenty of time on the couch. I purchased a used video game console last week in anticipation of the increased time at home. I took an informal inventory of all the books I bought at the secondhand store and placed on my shelf and can finally get around to reading. I downloaded TikTok to my phone, which was basically like a short-lived experiment that didn’t end well. I vowed to leave home only for groceries and to play golf, both activities I find more enjoyable when practiced alone.
Now, only a few days into this new normal, this introvert has already realized that I can’t endure in isolation. I have a roommate, at least, and we have a chess board and a PlayStation. However — and I write this without the slightest shred of ill will toward him — if that dude is my only social contact for the next month, we will probably find ourselves holed up in warring fortresses on either side of the apartment, lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other in a state of mutually assured emotional destruction.
And here’s where I get back to the problem with “social distancing.” Certainly, we should all be taking an abundance of caution to avoid large crowds and bodily proximity with strangers — come on people, stop going to bars — but there’s a fine line between social distancing and social isolation. Our world already does enough to make us feel isolated and alone; the solution to this public health crisis can’t be for everyone to just crawl into a hole and hide. We need a way to be proactive about maintaining social connection while also practicing physical distancing.
Over the past few days, I’ve seen seasoned work-from-home veterans weigh in on social media with strategies for how to transition from working in an office space to working in your kitchen or living room. I don’t know the first thing about working from home — teaching is, at least at this point, still very much an in-person sort of enterprise. I do, on the other hand, happen to live several states away from my family and most of my friends, and am also a survivor of the dreaded long-distance relationship, and so I have some level of expertise when it comes to keeping social connection while at the same time practicing physical distancing. It seems like this might be useful information as we hunker down for one of the strangest and most uncomfortable seasons of life in collective memory.
Here are five strategies to help you stay connected and hopefully not go crazy:
1. Use the internet (duh).
Good news, friends: the internet makes this super easy. I honestly don’t know how people stayed in touch before email and social media — I guess they wrote letters? Crazy.
Anyway, there are literally dozens of options at your disposal for keeping in contact with friends and loved ones from afar. For me, texting and Twitter make up the foundation — these platforms are asynchronous, a term I learned just last week when researching best practices for distance learning. Asynchronous means “not at the same time” — in other words, the person I’m connected with does not need to be actively using their phone or laptop or tablet or whatever at the same moment as me.
Twitter and I have a love-hate relationship, to be sure, and there are times when the vibes are straight up bad. The good things about Twitter, though, have really shone during this crisis: it’s a reliable source of up-to-the-minute news, provided you know whose tweets you’re reading; there is ample cross-referencing and fact-checking in real time; it’s easy to find a fair bit of gallows humor, if that’s your thing; and there is a requisite goofiness that pokes a hole squarely in any over-inflated sensationalism. Twitter definitely isn’t for everyone, but I love the way it makes me feel like I’m participating in life with a broad collection of other people.
2. The more senses, the better.
Texting and Twitter are good, but I discovered something in my roughly two years of long-distance dating: the more senses you’re able to engage from afar, the better. This is why Snapchat and Instagram are so popular — you’re still sending messages composed of text, with the added bonus of seeing each other’s faces. Both of those apps have video features, which ratchets up the experience by adding sound. These are still asynchronous — I can view and respond at my leisure, which for some reason makes me feel calm and relaxed.
If you’re ready for direct, synchronous connection, there is of course the old-fashioned phone call. Apart from the fact that every one of my fellow millennials just started to feel slightly anxious about the idea of talking to someone on the phone, this is a viable option. (I don’t know why we all hate phone calls, I just know that when my phone rings my first instinct is to throw it across the room regardless of who is calling, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.)
Far superior in every way to the phone call, though, is the live video chat. It’s probably most common on apps like FaceTime or Skype, but it seems like more and more apps are adding this as an option, because it’s the best one — no, I’m not in the same room, but by combining the senses of sight and sound, and adding synchronicity, this is a fine way to spend quality time from afar.
3. Get creative.
This might be my favorite piece of advice, because this widespread quarantine business finally gives the rest of y’all an excuse to embrace the weird. I’m talking about movie nights where you and your friends watch Netflix at the same time via this new Chrome extension. I’m talking about making the same meal and eating it together at the same time in different states. Bust out a deck of cards or a board game and get wild. The video game industry embraced this a long time ago — using the internet to pretend you’re in the same room with your bros, even though you’re not. Is this a super dorky thing you used to make fun of your long-distance relationship friends for? Absolutely! But now it’s the best option anybody has, so lean into the dorkiness.
In all seriousness, getting creative about this virtual social connection is legitimately life-giving, especially for those of us who get a little restless once we run out of things to talk about. It seems obvious, but doing things together (even when you can’t be together) is a vital part of any friendship, and embracing the slight absurdity of playing Scrabble over Skype somehow adds a level of intimacy that isn’t a guarantee otherwise.
4. Schedule time.
Look, schedules are not everyone’s favorite thing. I like a good bit of freewheeling spontaneity in my life, but I also find it comforting to know that every Sunday evening, I’m video chatting with my parents for about an hour. I have done so every Sunday since I left for college; we stay in touch throughout the week with texts, Snapchats, and a stray phone call or two, but the standing appointment on Sunday evenings provides a little order, an anchor around which the rest of my week can settle.
Ad hoc check-ins are good, but if your plan is to pop some popcorn and finally watch Frozen 2 (which is really good!), it might be a good idea to make sure you’re on the same page with your virtual companions. What I’m realizing is that this rule basically amounts to “don’t annoy people with your friendship,” which is a good piece of advice I learned from The Office.
5. Log off.
I mean this in two different, but equally important, ways. First, no matter who you’re hanging out with virtually, resist the temptation to spend all day with them. You know how gases expand to fill the space they’re in? What I’m pretty much saying is, don’t be a gas. I once had a mentor tell me that I needed to have the confidence to know when I am doing enough, which is super deep and also relevant here. In this time of uncertainty and confusion and concern, it’s good to lean on each other. Stay connected, to be sure, but don’t put your happiness in the hands of your friends, relatives, or significant other — it’s not their responsibility to keep you entertained.
Which brings me to the second and equally important point here: Do things that don’t require the internet. Read a book, go for a walk, do yoga or some other at-home workout, cook a meal, bake cookies, make a cocktail, do a crossword or Sudoku, keep a journal, put together a jigsaw puzzle, play a musical instrument (if that’s a thing you can do — now’s a pretty good time to learn to play something if you’ve always wanted to).
Honestly, household chores fit in this category, too — do the dishes, fold the laundry, make your bed, clean the bathroom, do some landscaping. This is the stuff that will keep us grounded, that will provide structure and order in our otherwise increasing chaotic lives. It will also make the social media, video games, and Netflix binges more satisfying — and whenever it is that we’re finally able to congregate again, it would be sick to show up in shape and with a new hobby to show off.