“Altering the Mode of Sociality”: Communicating through quarantine

The shelter-in-place/lockdown/quarantine orders that took shape in March 2020 in many states have brought out new social dimensions in how we communicate— from taking our relationships online instead of offline, mediating communication through new apps, to the actual physical distance required to keep everyone safe at this time. When a close friend of mine sent our group chat the picture below of her talking to her nephew and immunocompromised mother about a major change in her life from 6 feet away through a house window, I decided to try and collect reflections on how this new social reality has changed how we communicate in our personal and professional lives. Here is a collection of instances that demonstrate the contours of changing expectations of social interactions. Overall, the assumption that in-person face-to-face communication holds the most value or is the best way to communicate is being forced to change.

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First, in the responses I collected, there was some reflection on jarring radical social changes. Jody is a health educator on an Army base in upstate New York and after the first confirmed COVID19 case on the base, her work with “full on people interaction” drastically changed overnight. Jody began doing virtual classes, phone appointments, and daily video meetings with her co-workers. She’s found herself texting family and friends everyday instead of once or twice a week and craving social interaction, since she lives alone. I also found that when going outside, I felt a new intense urge to connect with others. Jody mentions that when walking:

I ALWAYS say hello to others that are out walking as well. Even when I go to the store to pick up some things, my eyes are up looking for a simple smile and basic human interaction. Any human interaction is better than none. […] When I was working I was exhausted at the end of the day and didn’t want to talk to or look at others and now I seek it out.

For Heidi too, an engineer in Columbus, not only has she been FaceTiming family and friends at more regular intervals and for longer amounts of time, but she’s also been connecting with people she has never met before to talk about common interest topics. In their messages to me, Heidi and Jody listed off apps like Discord, Marco Polo, Houseparty, Snapchat, and Jackbox that they are newly using or using much more to communicate across new physical distances.

The new distance has been difficult to bridge while major life events continue. Andrew, a consultant in DC, wrote about how he and his wife, Heather, struggled to teach his mother how to use some of the technology that is becoming commonplace so she could see their new baby—video chatting. He wrote, “It’s especially hard for them given how much they’d been looking forward to being grandparents, and now they have to experience so much of it virtually.”

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Professional boundaries and platforms for professional and private communication are also changing. Similar to Jody’s response about the face-to-face interaction that constituted her work, Tim, who has worked in the Silicon Valley tech industry for over three decades, was surprised that he could “work to his fullest potential” from home substituting text for all the verbal and non-verbal communication he usually prefers. He continues to be surprised and followed-up with me in another message about how smoothly having around “100 people on a NASA Control Board via WebEx” went, but also that he had dreamt about missing his motorcycle commute.

As professional boundaries for communication are changing, so too are the platforms on which professional information is considered to be formal and private. Cherie, a medical professional in Washington State, forwarded a message to me from the birth center office where she works. The office told their staff their daily COVID19 updates could not be shared on Facebook anymore. She explained that sharing medical information on Facebook, even in private groups, could be construed as providing information to media. Cherie clarified that amongst her co-workers, information was being shared on Facebook initially only because of the difficulties in accessing their work email platform from home when they were told to stay home on short notice. These discrepancies indicate a breakdown in the boundaries and definitions between information shared on news media and social media platforms, especially at a time of such rapid and pressing change. Ferhan also mentioned that in her PhD research in anthropology among a medical community focusing on birthing in Turkey, she has seen her interlocutors use Instagram more and do Instagram live videos to ask and answer questions about their work and disseminate information about medical needs. So among her research community, these social media outlets are becoming formalized as legitimate and authoritative platforms for communication in place of in-person consultations and meetings.

Virtual communication with friends, family, and colleagues is not entirely new for many though. Ferhan expressed how she has been communicating via WhatsApp everyday for many years with her family, friends, and interlocutors in Turkey from the US, where she has lived for 10 years while completing her MA and PhD. COVID19 “didn’t make much of a change in [her] relationships, [she] was already using these technologies” and it can be frustrating for her to sometimes hear her American friends bemoan the fact that they can only “see their friends and family through a screen” when she has been already doing that with the same technology for at least a decade. I similarly mentioned that I seemed to be communicating on the same platforms as I had been with friends and family spread across the globe, but do so now about more narrow topics of conversation to check in on their health and safety more frequently.

Whether it is in-person or mediated via technology, the ways we relate to each other by communicating have had to adapt very quickly to new physical distances. We have been told to do away with in-person and close face-to-face interaction and our new and current reality in terms of communication is “altering the mode of sociality but not cutting relations” as Shweta, another anthropology PhD candidate, reflected. In collecting these short anecdotes, it was interesting to see new ways of meeting the needs of communication and social interaction. It will be even more interesting to see what endures of these new shifts in communication necessitated by this strange period in history. With the new reliance on communication technology to maintain social and professional bonds and relations, unequal access to what is becoming an invaluable tool today sheds light on how and why the most low-tech forms of communication, like talking face-to-face, are valued and now perhaps, grieved as well.

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