Let me tell you about my life BC (Before Coronavirus). I’m flashing back to March, the week before the world stopped in its tracks, when the rumbling in the distance felt just that: distant. Although self-conscious and cautious enough to elbow-bump and stockpile hand gel, I was not changing my social life much. The remote threat did not stop me going to the theatre in London to see Tom Stoppard’s play Leopaldstadt, which is about a Jewish family who cannot get out of the way of the Holocaust and is divided about whether it is coming at all. No one wore masks in the theatre, no one worried about touching a glass in the bar and I edged past people in the tight theatre corridors as always. When I parted from my two girlfriends outside Leicester Square station to board packed trains home we said, “See you soon.”
The next day I had a work lunch at the Ivy Club in Covent Garden; it was full. That evening I took visiting American friends for fabulously strong house martinis at the St James’s Hotel in Mayfair. The only social distance really in my mind was the prospect of my book launch planned for three weeks’ time and a forthcoming trip to Japan with one of my children.
Now I have the hook of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” going round in my head: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I miss big yellow taxis in New York like a form of grief. Did I ever think in a million years that I would miss standing centimetres away from someone in an airport security queue? Or that jamming into a lift in a skyscraper would feel luxurious? Who doesn’t miss the touch of a shoulder as you ease into a restaurant booth or the clumsy passing of luggage into a tight overhead space before settling back and engaging in mid-air talk with a stranger, which often ends up being surprisingly wonderful? Who doesn’t miss their old life? I thought it was just teenagers who were triggered but I find that as I watch television (does anyone do anything else, other than video calls?) the scenes of people in real meetings or at parties or anywhere else they are together fill me with an aching nostalgia.
And yet. While I miss my social life, I haven’t stopped being my social self. In fact, many of us are connected to each other more strongly now than we were before. Even though coronavirus is dastardly clever and confounding us with its tricks and tropes, infecting us to diminish our physical health and putting stress on our mental health, it has actually boosted a different kind of health – one that humans thrive on more than any other living creature. It has strengthened our social health.
Humans are social beings. We exist to form communities. Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, director of ucla’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience laboratory, has proved that the default position of the human brain at rest is to concern itself – like a motor running constantly – with love and connection. What we have seen arising from the depths of misery and anxiety during the first wave of the outbreak is a significant silver lining: the reconnection of people to each other and to the very question of society.
All through the early days of lockdown in London, I saw strong signs of social health. Community spirit rose, from the handwritten notes put through neighbours’ doors offering help with shopping, to the Clap for Carers movement that mirrored similar practices around the world. People raised funds; they donated. When the prime minister himself went into intensive care with the virus, a collective cry of anguish went up from every political end of the spectrum (normal hostilities were quickly resumed but it was a moment nonetheless).
The crisis made social networks and social media a lifeline. People could connect in smaller numbers, with arguably greater intimacy. The user base of video-calling service Zoom went up by 1,000 per cent as office life migrated to it, and Whatsapp use leapt by 40 per cent. People who had once been too busy to do more than extend an annual cocktail-party invitation were calling each other simply to say, “How are you?” Although much is made of “Zoom gloom”, I found a vibrancy to these virtual meetings, which only the best in-person gatherings normally provide. People were what some psychologists and mindfulness gurus call “fully present”.
As someone who always maintained that we needed to be more “face-to-face in a Facebook world”, I took great pleasure from convening a global Whatsapp and Zoom group of 80 or so friends and connections from around the world that I called “corona conversations”. Within days it became clear that people really hungered for the conversation, news, cat jokes, viral memes and the swapping of intelligence, hearsay and the latest medical papers. From Nairobi to New York, my network twanged with energy.
In short, people adapted. People did not stop being social just because there was physical distance between them. They upped their intimacy; they deepened their connections. They built trust.
How can we capitalise on this over the coming months and years so that our social health strengthens as our physical and mental health also rebalances? First, stay slow and scale down. Recognise that speed and scale are not as necessary as we thought. That slowing down long enough to connect with yourself and your life offers a chance to reset priorities and emerge stronger. This is not to say we shouldn’t travel or that we should stop organising conferences. But that we might do so differently. We can become “boutique” in our thinking – even if we work within giant corporations. This could be a tremendous moment for companies to do less but better rather than doing more, badly.
Second, work differently. Use this moment to break with the past in terms of the workplace. Instead of gathering in dull office buildings with all the delays and dangers of trying to put large groups of people in small spaces, let’s see more walk-and-talks, taking advantage of canals, parks and the outdoors. When people are in the same office space together, let’s not use this time to communicate with one another on email or to “chat” on cloud-based platforms but to be truly social, face to face. That could be to make decisions or swap juicy team-bonding gossip. And crucially, let’s use this pivotal moment to talk less about leadership and more about community and purpose.
Third, build new networks. I’ve made a whole bunch of new connections by dropping into virtual conferences that previously I would never have made time for. Contrast this to laptop factories in workspaces where everyone keeps to themselves. Even private members’ clubs have been poor places to network because really they are just private restaurants and bars, where you’re waited on by, well, waiters. Why not turn them into places where people are tended to by connectors – people who know their members and can facilitate on-the-spot introductions? No one needs an endless programme of bland “events” so much as they do clever curating of people and ideas.
Ruth Rogers of west London’s famous River Café wrote how she reopened with trepidation after the 2008 financial crash and found that, “What people wanted most of all was to come together and reunite.” There is, ultimately, a simplicity about people and what they want, even as we face tremendous complexity in the months and years ahead to recreate
our world. I’m reminded of Billy Joel’s epic song “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” which reminisces about a reunion years after everyone’s lives have changed. They are older, wiser and a little sadder but they gather, “In our old familiar place, you and I, face to face.” You can’t stop humans getting together, even if we do so for a while in masks, only in our home cities and with heavier hearts than before. We’ll always have our social health.
About the author: Hobsbawm writes and speaks on social health and simplicity in a complex world. Her new book and podcast, both titled The Simplicity Principle, are available now. simplicityprinciple.info