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Alone, Together: Why It's Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing

Alone, Together: Why It’s Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing

During the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, we’ve been hearing a lot about “social distancing.” That is, when out in public, you should keep at least 6 feet apart from others, as much as possible.

But clearly this has nothing to do keeping socially distant from others. Instead, it’s all about keeping your physical distance from others.

We have more tools than ever before to keep socially connected with colleagues, friends and family. Unlike previous pandemics, we need to utilize these social connectedness tools to ensure that physical isolation doesn’t result in psychological or social isolation.

I’m not sure how so many governmental authorities got this wrong from Day 1. The term “social distancing” is not only a misnomer, it is exactly the opposite of what we want people to do during any type of natural disaster, such as the current pandemic ravaging the world.

During a time of great upheaval, it’s important to stay connected to people that matter most in your life. Whether it be with friends or family, or even a next-door neighbor, social connectedness is an important component of society. It keeps us feeling like we’re all a part of the same group.

Psychologists refer to this as “in-group” versus “out-group” (or ingroup vs outgroup) bias. When we feel like we’re all in this together, we don’t demonize or discriminate against others. And during a pandemic, we can all be a part of the in-group, because all of us are at risk not only of getting the COVID-19 disease, but also of transmitting it to others. (Remember, you can have it and be without symptoms.)

A terrible thing such as a pandemic can therefore have at least a small silver lining. We are all pulling together to fight the invisible enemy, rallying our resources around our most vulnerable citizens (the elderly, those in nursing homes, and frontline healthcare workers and first responders), and ensuring everyone has the supplies they need to get through this trying time.

This is an important time to reach out to friends, especially those you haven’t heard from in some time. Check in on them, make sure they are doing alright. Ask how they’re doing not just physically, but also emotionally: “Hey, this pandemic has really got me a little anxious about the future… how about you?”

Like never before, we have dozens of different ways of connecting with others socially without having to be anywhere near them physically. Social networks, video conferencing, podcasts, livestreams, texting, email, you name it, there are more ways to stay connected than at any other time before in the history of our civilization. And guess what — mailing old-fashioned letters and using the phone as an actual telephone still works, too. Everybody can be as socially connected as they want to be.

Staying connected is also an important part of our psychological health. Human beings are social animals. Most people need a certain amount of social interaction every week, or they start to feel isolated and alone. But as we see, that social interaction can still occur, even during a pandemic. It just needs to occur in a different way for awhile.

Need help with boredom or not knowing exactly how to connect with others socially? USA Today came up with 100 things to do while stuck inside due to a pandemic. Remember, you can also do group chats through services like Zoom or Google Hangouts. Watch a TV show together, play a game together (like any of the wonderful interactive games you can play on any device from Jackbox games, or just check in once a week to see how the other person is doing.

You can do this. Just remember, it’s all about physical distancing, not social distancing. Keep socially connected and it’ll help with your overall outlook and mental health. We’ll all get through this. Together.

Alone, Together: Why It’s Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing


John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.


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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2020). Alone, Together: Why It’s Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/alone-together-why-its-physical-distancing-not-social-distancing/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Apr 2020 (Originally: 8 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Apr 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.