I rode the U-Bahn (Berlin underground) the other day. Ten minutes of standing among strangers nervously glancing around for any signs of sickness in their fellow passengers was about the sum total of my real-life social interactions for the past month or so. The pandemic has left us socially impoverished.
Before, the norm was to insulate ourselves from other humans by wearing headphones or sticking our noses in our phones, but now, with the abundance of human contact wiped off practically overnight, the strangers you meet on the streets are closer than friends. And it made me wonder.
Some social norms, like the handshake—a universal gestures that accompanied human interactions for centuries—became an unwelcome sign of someone’s recklessness. Mask wearing, once seen in the west as a quaint Chinese custom, may become not only necessary but mandated. A person without a mask sends a message, and it says, “I don’t care about your safety.”
Will other norms change too?
The quarantine has taught us that we need real human contact. Social media, and the apps on our phones, it turns out, make for a poor substitute for meeting people in person. Will we, after the pandemic is over, appreciate more the presence of others in our lives and the moments we share together? Enough to give people our full, undivided attention?