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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLA2020 Racial Justice Movement

The Quad: Should we call quarantine-imposed isolation physical, not social, distancing?

Even though the terms physical and social distancing are often used interchangeably, looking into the history of the terms
can contextualize their usage in the current day. (MacKenzie Coffman/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Maya Harris

June 1, 2020 8:09 p.m.

When we have a graduation party over Zoom or text a friend to complain about online exams, are we really “socially” distancing?

Well, not in the literal sense. We may be physically distant when we do these things, but not necessarily socially distant. Various organizations, media outlets and individuals have expressed concern about the inaccuracy of this term and the implicit message that it conveys to the public, advocating for the use of the phrase “physical distancing” instead. With this in mind, The Quad is attempting to distinguish “social” from “physical” distancing and how these two terms can be used in different contexts during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the earliest conversations about using the term “physical distancing” versus “social distancing” originated among professors in the sociology department of our very own UCLA campus. These conversations culminated in an Op-ed piece titled “Don’t call it ‘social distancing’” published by CNN.

In the Op-ed, UCLA sociology professors Jennie Brand, Cecilia Menjívar and Jacob Foster advocated for using the more accurate term “physical distancing” to emphasize that remaining socially connected during quarantine is critical for supporting our mental health and communities.

Brand said that the suggestion to write the Op-ed came up during a departmental meeting shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19.

“We started discussing the messaging that was occurring in the media on social distancing, and Cecilia mentioned that it really should be called physical distancing,” she said. “What we’re really talking about is just physically separating people. Social connections matter and should be maintained in this time.”

[Related: Theater students improvise virtual methods to replace in-person productions]

Given the inaccuracy of this term, why did it come into use in the first place? In reality, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how “social distancing” came to be used in the context of disease control, although the term and the idea of isolating people to prevent disease transmission was first officially promoted in the U.S. under the Bush administration.

However, the notion of social distancing was not originally intended to describe a method for preventing disease transmission.

Cultural anthropologist Edward Hall came up with the term “proxemics” in 1963 to describe the kinds of social distancing that people practice in their everyday lives. Hall’s research illuminated the degree to which peoples’ attitudes toward each other based on various demographic and cultural factors impact their reactions to social distance in everyday life. The concept of social distancing in his studies was, unlike the current use of the term, actually intended to emphasize the social dynamics that influence peoples’ physical distance from one another.

Under the current situation, however, Brand said that the use of the term “social distancing” is emphasizing these social differences and dynamics negatively. Although Hall’s studies on social space weren’t framed within the context of a pandemic, his findings highlight Brand’s worry that the notion of “social distancing” might drive people to ostracize those who are most vulnerable to the consequences of the pandemic such as those who continue to work on the front lines or have lost their jobs.

“If we emphasize something like social distancing, sometimes people perceive that as not engaging with the community and the people who are the most vulnerable,” Brand said.They’re creating some distance, maybe some social class distance, and we definitely don’t want that message conveyed.”

In addition, Brand stressed that in advocating for the term “physical distancing,” she and her co-authors also wanted to encourage people to think about how distancing measures are unequally impacting different groups. She said that framing our actions as physical distancing rather than social distancing could remind people to consider other people’s experiences while helping to maintain social cohesion and support.

This call for a distinction between the two terms is not limited to academia and the media. Major health organizations such as the CDC and WHO have made attempts to change their terminology or at least include the term “physical distancing” on their websites and during conferences to clarify that distancing measures do not preclude staying connected with loved ones.

However, Brand recognized that this shift in wording will be an upward battle.

“Once the phrase is out there it’s sticky, and people start to associate it with what they’re doing,” Brand said. But we still feel that this is going to be around for some time and probably pick up again in the fall, so it’s not too late to be thinking about this message and what it conveys.”

[ICYMI: Napolitano says UCs will likely operate on hybrid basis for fall, decision not yet made]

While encouraging social awareness and cohesion is critical, do the words themselves actually impact our understanding of distancing measures?

UCLA linguistics professor Jessica Rett said that using the word “physical” rather than “social” distancing would certainly be a more accurate way of denoting shelter-at-home orders given the technological connectivity of the world. However, Rett also said that the extent to which labels impact how we think and behave depends on the context and nature of those labels.

“We’re used to labels being arbitrary (a rose by any other name would smell as sweet), and we’re used to focusing more on people’s intended meaning rather than their literal meaning,” she said in an emailed statement.

In terms of the current situation, Rett explained that when people hear the term “social distancing,” they will likely interpret it to mean “physical distancing” because they understand enough about the context in which it is being used.

Similarly, Betsy Wo, a second-year linguistics and psychology student, said she had interpreted “social distancing” to essentially mean “physical distancing.”

Although she said that it has been challenging to stay in contact with friends, Wo also said that quarantine has allowed her to connect with people she wouldn’t normally call or see in person because of her busy schedule and that her time spent video-calling and texting was greater than before.

At the same time, Wo recognized that quarantine is impacting people in different ways and that seeing the term “social distancing” in the media might be perceived more negatively for some than for others. She said that one of her friends, who has depression, is experiencing greater difficulty grappling with increased isolation and the stream of negativity in the news and other media.

Regardless of the degree to which the terms themselves impact the way we think about and carry out distancing, the underlying message promoting the use of the term “physical distancing” is a reminder to stay connected not only with our loved ones but also to our communities and those who are most vulnerable to the consequences of the pandemic.

As this hectic quarter comes to a close and we head into the mayhem of graduation and online finals, let’s remember to take care of one another and stay socially connected, but physically distant.

 

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Maya Harris
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