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It’s not social distancing, it’s physical distancing

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

social distancing coping cross-cultural-adjustment expatriate self-improvement

I think we may have our response to the coronavirus wrong. Everywhere we go, we face mandates for social distancing.

But do we have it right?

Social distancing is now forever embedded in our vocabulary. We hear about, read about, and see signs and warnings. We know that we have to disperse crowds and find ways to limit contact to help slow down the spread of the coronavirus. But words are important. Have we chosen the best way to say this?

I think we should change social distancing to physical distancing.

Physical distance and social distance are different.

Physical distance is the space between objects. It is a neutral, physical fact. The logic is understandable, more distance means less contact, less contact means less virus spread. But physical distance is not the social, emotional, and connective ties we have with each other. Those are personal and social attributes and they are different.

That is not to say that physical distance and social distance are not interrelated. We need to be physically close to connect with each other. A text message, email, or video call is a great substitute but cannot completely replace personal contact. We can do a lot to maintain social contact when physically separated, but we cannot fully replace the satisfaction and support we derive from human contact.

Our needs for social bonds are strong. We have an instinct to come together during crisis. We hug, connect, reach out, ask if others are well, and rush to provide assistance to the needy. In short, despite the sorrowful condition of the world around us, we care about each other. I believe that during this crisis we should be socially closer more than ever before.

We can remain socially close, even when physically distant.

I wonder about the psychological impact of physical distancing. Every time we avoid another person, step away from others, or choose a distant seat, we are reinforcing the idea that others are a threat. And, we are passing this learning to our children. I believe we must counterbalance this polarization by reaching out to others, finding meaningful ways to connect, and making sure that we explain our actions to our children – even as we remind ourselves that all of this is necessary but, ultimately, temporary.

We know that the negative mental health effects of the coronavirus include increases in anxiety, depression, substance use, and stress disorders. The good news is that, even though we are forced to be physically distant, people are finding new ways to be socially close and support each other.

People are tenacious. Even in the face of the pandemic, we are reassessing our relationships and appreciating them in new ways. We are making a dedicated effort to preserve relationships that are important to us. We are using social media, apps, computers, and video to find, connect, and provide support to others.

While cyber connections may not be a complete replacement for personal contact, we are doing the best we can with what we have. We have learned that we can remain socially close, even when physically distant.

Interested in reading more? For my books and blog, see

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit is Unsplash)

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