How slippery is the slope from social distancing to disgust?

Social distancing was odd at first. So odd, in fact, that most of us couldn’t do it without concentrating very hard, and as soon as we stopped concentrating, we drifted closer to each other in a human enactment of the Cheerios effect.

Cheerios failing to practise social distancing (source)

We kept bootcamp going for a while after social-distancing recommendations were introduced (but before gatherings were banned) and we spent a lot of time having to remind each other to keep a distance. Everyone felt so uncomfortable having conversations across two metres of empty space that they kept drifting closer together in spite of themselves. We realised it just wasn’t going to work and ended up suspending bootcamp because of it. At work we talked about social distancing but it was practised in half-hearted sort of way. And if a friend greeted you with a hug, you hugged back, even if you felt uneasy about it. Social distancing just felt so unfriendly, almost rude, and for most people the reluctance to cause offence outweighed the reluctance to spread the virus.

Once social distancing started being institutionalised, that was when people started observing it. Shops that remained open painted crosses on the ground for people to stand on as they queued to get in, and people enthusiastically stood on the crosses. Parks had signs put up at the entrances saying “Stay two metres apart!” and people duly moved off the paths when they passed each other.

Some institutionalisation of social distancing:

Enthusiastically observing institutionalised social distancing in the supermarket queue:

Face coverings have not been institutionalised, and very few people are wearing them. The government delayed recommending them because of concerns that people would overestimate their effectiveness and would feel invincible and therefore neglect more important things like social distancing and handwashing. Now that the lockdown has been relaxed a bit and people are mingling more, the government is recommending face coverings but they are not mandatory (and specifically “face coverings”, not “masks”, because there is a severe – and unnecessary – shortage of masks for medical staff, but we won’t rant about that here).

Some of the distancing measures strike me as purely, or largely, symbolic, like the perspex screens that many shops have installed between the cashiers and the customers, with a gap to pass products or card machines through. The screens might give the cashiers some protection from truly violent onslaughts of virus-laden air currents, say if a customer were to sneeze particularly explosively without covering their mouth (although nobody does that anymore!), but what about that gap that items are passed through? And the gaping open space all the way around the edge of the screen? I feel that the screen serves mainly as a psychological defence against other people’s perceived dirtiness. 

Sandra the cashier, delighted to be behind a perspex screen, even though viruses are floating merrily around the edges and through the “Please pay here” gap

Social distancing may well be sensible hygienic practice while an incurable, vaccineless infection is hopping from person to person, but I am worried that sensible precautions may be morphing into a fear of getting too close to others. Specifically, I’m worried that people may be developing a sense of disgust at others.

When you move off a path as you approach someone, you may genuinely mean it as a gesture of politeness – “I don’t want to pass you any bugs I may be carrying” or even simply “I know that I’m not infected but I want to reassure you” – but it can look as if you’re saying “I don’t want to get close to you because you repulse me”. And if we repeatedly act as if we think that, I worry that we may condition ourselves into actually thinking it. 

I worry that thoughts of “I don’t want to risk infecting other people” can too easily lead to thoughts of “I don’t want to risk being infected by other people” and from there to “Other people are dirty”.

And I worry that that feeling that other people are dirty might become embedded in our psyches, so far removed from the original intention that engendered it that it acquires an existence of its own. And once feelings of disgust are embedded, they are very hard to dislodge, as shown in experiments by Paul Rozin, in which children were happy enough to drink orange juice in which a sterilised cockroach had been dunked, while adults, who had learned to associate cockroaches with disgust, could not be persuaded to drink it. 

So I was reassured to hear Yuval Noah Harari saying that seeking out close contact with other people is part of human nature, and historically epidemics have not changed human nature. We have to adjust our behaviour while the pandemic is in progress, but as soon as the threat is contained, our behaviour defaults back to factory settings. As soon as we can, we’ll be pawing at each other and breathing in each other’s faces again. Except for the Nordics, who were doing social distancing long before it was à la mode and are unlikely to feel the need to change their ways now:


Danielle Allen, a political theorist, was asked in a TED conversation (in keeping with the zeitgeist, TED is doing videocall interviews instead of conferences) how we can make sure that this pandemic doesn’t lead to widespread fear of the “other” that then morphs into xenophobia. She said that we have to recognise that we are all susceptible to the virus, regardless of our nationality or culture. In other words, we have to recognise that it is not a human adversary that we are up against; our adversary is the pandemic. And the way to tackle this adversary is by investing in better healthcare infrastructure and ensuring that our economies and societies are pandemic-resilient. I liked her approach of getting to the root of the problem: that way we can tackle the real problem (our current lack of infrastructure to mitigate a pandemic) instead of its results (people becoming scared of each other).

See her full TED conversation, entitled “An ethical plan for ending the pandemic and restarting the economy”, here

Incidentally, I was interested to learn that fashion has historically been used as an instrument for enforcing or encouraging social distancing, such as the bird-like masks worn by doctors during the bubonic plague or the bells worn by lepers. Nor was it always for reasons of health and hygiene. Victorian ladies, for example, wore crinolines to keep over-eager suitors at bay. (When voluminous skirts went out of fashion, women stopped trying to be subtle about it and switched to simply stabbing roving male hands with hat pins. How hard are your outfits working for you?)

Plague doctor (source); leper (source); crinoline (source); hatpins (source)

9 thoughts on “How slippery is the slope from social distancing to disgust?

  1. Great post Lara! And I assume one day you’ll be able to add trendy facemasks to that list of social distancing fashion! Anyway it’s a very interesting topic and I’ve also been kind of wondering how things will change as we get back to whatever normal is. Here I’ve noticed just in the past few days that, with fewer regulations in place now, people seem to forget and get up close and personal more often than the should. Cheerios, for sure!


    1. Jackie: Trendy facemasks are a thing here in South Africa already. Quite silly but all the favourite brands are selling their version of the facemask


  2. It’s all very well for Danielle Allen to point out that we are not up against a human adversary, but that our adversary is the pandemic itself. Her argument may well hold sway at a political level. But at the level of our daily interactions with other human beings, my feeling is that reflexes come into play more quickly than does logic. And it seems that the reflex to recoil from too-close physical contact with others is what may have been conditioned into us over the past few months.

    But maybe not!

    After all, we were PRE-conditioned (for much longer!) into social etiquette that included shaking hands, for example. And it may be that, for cultures that are more tactile, historic conditioning may win out over recent conditioning.

    I don’t expect that mandating hooped skirts as a social distancing measure would be especially effective in the 2020s, given that skirts aren’t as voluminous nowadays. But hat pins (if one could find them!) sound a splendid way of achieving a similar effect – and their use (unlike that of hopped skirts) wouldn’t be limited to a single gender.


  3. We were talking about something similar about this the other day. Here in South Africa, you’re not supposed to take children with you if you go grocery shopping or anything. So we’re going to have a whole bunch of small kids that are terrified of strangers.

    PS: I’ve heard about the hat pin thing before. Hilarious!


    1. I reckon this pandemic is going to have lasting effects on many, many children, both for practical reasons (interrupted education, harder access to food or medical facilities, loss of parents’ income) and for psychological ones (lack of contact with strangers, extended family members and friends, seeing their parents stressed, etc.). I think the psychological fallout will, to some extent, correct itself once the pandemic is over. The practical fallout perhaps less so.


  4. Really interesting! I’d love to get more performance out of my outfits! I wonder what damage a floral shawl can do? 😀 I’m finding, especially since the lock down has eased, that many people are ignoring social distancing rules e.g. by not moving out of the way as you approach them on a narrow path. Some do. I tend to move out of the way first, but I do smile to make up for the unfriendliness that giving someone a wide berth does, in the hope that it comes across as respectful. You’ve reminded me that I recently learned the history of the handshake which i’m amazed I didn’t know! Apparently it was to show each other that no weapons were being concealed. Now let me remove that shawl from my hand…!


    1. It’s reassuring that you’ve noticed people becoming more relaxed about distancing (although is it a bit premature? Where to find the balance between staying safe and staying sane???) Interesting about the origins of the handshake. Although presumably you would have had to shake both hands to be sure. And I’m sure you look beautiful in your floral shawl and the only damage you can do is to those who might bump into something because they are distracted by you in it.


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