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During recent months, many articles have been written on the topic of love – especially on how to find or sustain it during the the coronavirus pandemic. We know, and feel, that our relationships are changing in many ways. We see each other less, but we have more contact online.

But what about the relationships we have with the few people we pass on the way to the supermarket, in the metro, or out on a run? What has changed in these smallest of encounters with our fellow humans? It seems to me that the way we engage and relate to strangers on the street is changing, too.

Strangers Become Threats

With the virus spreading quickly, we have been told to physically distance ourselves from one another. Out in the streets, we give each other a wide berth. However, with physical distance comes an emotional distance, too. Strangers become potential ‘threats’ – potential carriers of the virus that can harm us or those around us.

The coronavirus brings more division than ever. The ‘other’ becomes something completely separate from us – not somebody to respect and engage with, but some ‘body’ to avoid. We see such thinking acted out in the physical fights happening in supermarkets and in the xenophobia and racism being shown.

Though such behavior is outrageous and unacceptable, it is important to acknowledge the heightened levels of anxiety people are experiencing. With more people feeling on edge, aggression and violence may result. More generally, many people are experiencing mental ill-health due to the pandemic, with feelings of depression and loneliness seemingly rising. All the more reason to connect and stand strong, together.

Face Masks, Communication and Understanding

Face masks make it harder to communicate and understand others. Of course, wearing a mask is sometimes necessitated by someone’s line of work, or is recommended by a government. It is relevant, though, to keep in mind that wearing a face mask changes something in our non-verbal communication. Facial expression is key to expressing ourselves and in understanding others. Kathleen M. Pike, Director of the Columbia-WHO Centre in Global Mental Health, explains that:

We need to remember that as our masks intercept the transmission of coronavirus, they also intercept important non-verbal communications that are universal to our emotional connection.

Physical Distancing Does Not Equal Emotional Distancing

With or without face masks, our relationships with the people we encounter while we go about our days are changing. Many people are longing for intimacy, but finding it hard to find while we are obliged to keep our distance. We can, however, offer the people we pass warmth through our eyes, our tone and our energy.

We can acknowledge other people’s existence and humanity, instead of turning away or looking at them through a lens of fear. Let’s draw smiles on our face masks, and wave at those on the other side of the street. Not knowing how much longer we’ll need to keep our physical distance, we could do with learning how to connect to others during even the smallest of encounters.

The Conversation

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