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“Social distancing” is the term given to the strategy of reducing physical contact in order to help control the spread of an infectious disease. But it implies a lack of social engagement that will be critical in the months ahead.

My wife and daughter “socially engaging at distance” in 2011. In reality, many of us have been “socially engaging at distance” with friends and family for years.
My wife and daughter “socially engaging at distance” in 2011. In reality, many of us have been “socially engaging at distance” with friends and family for years.

I was speaking with my aunt yesterday for the first time in months. It wasn’t just a call for the sake of catching up. I had some specific questions I wanted to ask her. But the conversation was long overdue and ended up being wide-ranging.

One of the areas we discussed was the importance of keeping engaged with others even though we are physically not in the same place. She told me of video calls she’s had with her friends, a sort of virtual cocktail party. I shared how I am trying to keep messaging threads and small communications going. We batted around ideas for ways to engage with our physical neighbors in non-physical ways.

At some point in the call, she said what we need isn’t “social distancing” but rather “social engagement at distance,” or SEAD. We joked about “planting a SEAD” and “nurturing our SEAD.” I told her I’m going to steal her phrase.

I don’t expect the word “social distancing” to ever be replaced by “Social Engagement At Distance.” It’s already embedded in our collective vocabulary. But I believe words matter. The way we speak frames the way we think. And the way we think influences our actions. The better we state what we want to achieve, the more likely we will be to achieve it.

From now on, SEAD is how I’m choosing to think about it. Being physically distant should not imply being socially distant, especially not in 2020!

You’re already doing it: I’ve been living abroad since 2014. I’ve been “socially engaging at distance” with most of my friends and family in the US for six years. You likely have close friends and relatives who live far from you. You’ve been socially engaging at distance from them as well. Many of our social relationships will be unchanged. You can use the same strategies to engage with people in your local community as well.

You get more control: Normally when we are in our regular social environments we don’t have a lot of control over who we interact with. Any colleague in the office can walk over and initiate a conversation. That’s often a good thing, but not always. What we lose in spontaneity we will regain in control. There are a lot of interactions you don’t need to have, don’t want to have, and don’t have an easy way to get out of. Now you do!

Everyone socializes differently: Some people like constant interaction. Others like having time to themselves. Some people are over-sharers. Others keep a lot to themselves. You may want to take your time stuck at home to initiate contact with everyone you know. Everyone you know may not want to reciprocate. We will need to figure out how and when people want to be social. It’s going to take time. If people want space, give them space. If you want space, ask for it.

What We Need Changes Over Time: Each week at home presents new and different problems. Someone who wanted to connect in week 1 might feel they need more “alone time” in week 2. And someone who was enjoying their “alone time” in week 1 might start itching to engage more in week 2. Expect that everyone’s feelings will change over time. Let’s try to be there for each other when we need each other, and not force interactions for the sake of interactions.

Private and Personal is more Positive: A lot of people live very public lives, primarily on social media. By all means, keep it up! But remember that others may not want to engage with you in that setting. I find it much more meaningful when a friend messages me or emails me with an update about their life compared to when I read it on Facebook. A personal or private message can have a much greater positive effect than a public message for the recipient.

Routines help but take time to create: “It takes two to tango,” as they say. True social engagement requires both sides to be engaged. Most of the value doesn’t come from one interaction but rather the cumulative effect of consistent interactions. (It’s not unlike learning in that regard.)

If you want to engage consistently, it helps to create a routine. Try to talk at the same time each day/week. If you are updating many people, try to do it on a schedule. For example, I send a short weekly email update about our family to my mom and sisters every Sunday. I’ve got it blocked in my calendar.

Schedule it and try to stick to it. Social engagement doesn’t “just happen” at distance. So don’t be frustrated if it doesn’t happen easily. Both sides may have to make a compromise to find something that works.

Physical interaction is different from digital interaction, and we need both: Talking with someone on the phone or on FaceTime is simply different from speaking to someone in person. It has advantages and disadvantages. There’s a time for each. Now that we are forced to do most of our interacting digitally, we will lose many of the benefits of physical interaction. We’re going to feel this loss strongly.

If you have neighbors you can safely engage with, make an effort to do it. They might need the connection but be afraid to ask. And it will reinforce why you are making these sacrifices, since it is the people around us who we are helping to protect.

Bryan Green is the co-founder, Editor, and COO of Go Be More. He has been socially engaging at distance for most of his adult life. He still prefers to meet with friends and family in person, but is glad he has routines in place to help. You can give him feedback at bryan◎ or on our Facebook page.

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