The surprising benefits of talking to strangers

The impact of Covid-19 on our engagement with strangers has not been entirely negative. At the height of the lockdown, there was a wave of #CovidKindness, with tens of thousands of people around the world helping others, whether they know them or not. American essayist Rebecca Solnit called such a response to the disaster a “carnival of compassion.”

“When all divisions and all ordinary models are broken, people come together to become the keepers of their brothers,” she said. writing. “And that determination and connectedness brings joy even in the midst of death, chaos, fear and loss.”

The British Future think tank reports that in focus groups conducted during the lockdown and as restrictions were relaxed, people spoke of a heightened sense of empathy and oneness as they felt more confident talking to strangers, taking into account the shared common experience. “Since I got sick we’ve had a lot of people at the door leaving cards, parcels, flowers,” said a discussion participant who lives in Paisley, Scotland.

Can this Covid-era connection between strangers survive the virus? Participants in the British Future study have expressed a wish that this good neighborliness and kindness to strangers will continue as we recover from the pandemic, but the report details the challenges: by age, but also by geography and wealth.

Beyond the mask

Wearing a mask, essential to protect our health and that of those around us, changes the way we make a connection. New York University neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel tells me that our brains process faces within a few hundred milliseconds of seeing someone. In this micro-time, we determine if the face is a friend or an enemy, if it looks friendly or threatening. In cultures that are not used to dealing with blankets, learning to communicate effectively may require some adjustment. (Learn more about how masks affect our interactions.)

Van Bavel suggests the need for a powerful marketing campaign to help people understand the function of masks and allow all of us to see them in a new light. Indeed, thousands of commuters in Japan wore masks every day before Covid, not because they were hypochondriacs, but because they had a cold and wanted to protect the needs of those around them. Reframing mask wearers as people who have chosen to be considerate of those around them can make us feel a measure of generosity and warmth towards them. (Learn more about how face masks are slowing the spread of Covid-19.)

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