Socially distant?

On 21st March, last Saturday, the Thai authorities announced a semi-lockdown. Closed malls, no sit-ins at restaurants (takeouts and deliveries only) – you know the drill. All in a “social distancing” effort to flatten the ever-steepening curve of COVID-19 infections in Thailand which, in the space of a week (14th to 21st), increased more than 5-fold.

The social distancing for me had begun almost one week earlier, on Monday 16th March – the first day us Agodans were working from home. It was initially announced as a test Work-From-Home (WFH) day, but at the end of the day the CEO extended it to the whole week (and by now it has been extended again to be “until further notice”).

Strangely though, ever since this all started and I’ve been cooped up at home, I’ve felt socially less distant to many groups of people in my life.

Let’s start with work people. Once the test WFH day was announced, our team’s management instituted daily check-ins – once in the morning, once at the end of the work day. Every day, at 9:30am, the whole team “meet” and trade dad jokes on the interweb. And since this practice started, I actually feel closer to them than I did previously.

Let me elaborate. At the office, our team largely sits together but is divided down the middle by an aisle. As would be expected, I’m closer to some team members than others. I would interact regularly with the ones I’m close to – inquire about their weekend, ask how their day is going, trade jokes. But for the others who I’m not as close to, and especially if they sit on the other side of the aisle, we have very limited interaction. Yes, I see their faces when I walk past. I say “hi” and “bye” every day – but that’s about it.

Once we began these virtual meetings though, everyone is a face on the screen (no more aisle as a physical divide) and we’re all having a conversation together. It’s no longer just me sharing a joke with a colleague. It’s the entire team suffering through terrible dad jokes together. Of course, not everyone gets to speak in any given call. But we’re all part of the conversation. And that has made me feel closer to all the members of the team.

Also, I’m actually collaborating (and hence interacting) more with people I never collaborated with before. Back in the days before COVID-19, there is a team member who sits behind me at the office, two rows away, with whom I had very limited interactions with, simply because, with all the screens, I literally don’t see them. In fact, most of the time I’m not even aware if they’re at their desk or not.

But ironically (and this may seem silly to you), because they’re in the same team and sitting physically close to me, I rarely thought to walk over to them to have a conversation. I make the effort to visit people in other teams at their desk across the hall, organize coffees with those people because they’re sitting far away and I don’t normally see them. But for this particular team member, I just don’t apply the same thinking. I was taking them, and their presence, for granted.

But now, seeing their face in the daily check-ins reminds me of their existence, makes me aware of my lack of one-to-one interactions with them. As a result I’ve scheduled a virtual coffee. One conversation led to another – we realised there is a space where we can collaborate to achieve greater results. And now we’re collaborating. And I feel closer to them than I ever did at the office when they were sitting merely two rows away.

So yes, I feel less socially distant to my work people – we’re having more conversations as a whole group (no more in-groups and out-groups – everyone is in), and we’re collaborating more.

The second group of people I feel closer to is my social media people. What I mean by this is people who live in my social media: faces I see on Instagram, statuses I see on Facebook.

COVID-19 has given me both an urge and a reason to reach out to them. The urge comes from the strong desire for meaningful interactions brought about by the isolation at home, and the reason is basically to ask how they’re doing and wish them well.

Yesterday morning I had a long conversation via Facebook Messenger with a former colleague. They had reached out to ask how I’m doing – and that turned into a long conversation where we didn’t only talk about COVID-19, but also about our lives – where we are physically and mentally.

Last Saturday, just before the semi-lockdown announcement, I reached out to an acquaintance I know from my year abroad in Paris back in 2011. I had been religiously following their life via Instagram. I basically have their timeline of life events from 2011 to 2020 down to a pat. But in all this time, I never once thought to reach out to them to say hi.

On Saturday, while reading their latest Instagram post, I had this realisation: they’re a real person I actually know. It’s not like they’re a K-pop star I’m following on Instagram where there is practically no scenario in which we’d interact. So why on earth did I never reach out to say hi?

So I did – I messaged them on Instagram to say hi and wish them well in this time of crisis (they’re a doctor). And they replied to wish me well. It didn’t turn into a long conversation where we caught up on all the goss – it didn’t have to. Just that short exchange of well wishes, to me, was a meaningful interaction. Something I doubt would have happened had this crisis not placed us in such extraordinary circumstances.

As I’m writing this, I’m making a mini-resolution not to forget that realisation: these people I actually know don’t live only on Instagram or Facebook. They’re real people I can reach out to and have meaningful interactions with. I’m not going to start messaging every single one of them, but there are certainly a few I’d want to reach out to and check in on how they’re doing.

So that’s me feeling closer to my social media people.

Mom’s cooking laid out for me every lunchtime

Next, and last (at least for this post), is the people in my inner-most circle: my parents, partner, closest friend.

After the authorities announced a semi-lockdown, I decided to come home to be with my parents (I normally live alone in downtown Bangkok). Admittedly, part of what factored into that decision was not wanting to die of starvation (I exaggerate), but also there was a strong desire just to be with them.

The isolation of the week preceding had left me feeling a little lonely, and for the first time in a very long time, I missed my parents. Which is not a feeling that happens very often.

I spent a large part of my teenage and young adult years studying abroad. Through all those years, I rarely missed my parents. If I’m honest with myself, I think I took them for granted. I thought they’d always be there when I come home.

COVID-19 changed that. First, they’re not young anymore. Fortunately they’re largely healthy and have no underlying health conditions, but both of them are over 60 years old and I’d say qualify as a vulnerable group. I’ve often had attacks of realisation that my parents could leave my at any moment (these attacks usually manifested themselves in visualisations of car crashes, falls down the stairs, etc.). But now I feel the threat to their health to be more real.

Second, with weeks of WFH looming, I realised I probably wouldn’t be able to cope without them. This is not a thought I have often, possibly ever. In normal circumstances, I’d like to think I am independent and don’t need to rely on my parents for support – be it financial or mental. But the isolation brought about by COVID-19 made me realise I do need them. That being with them will help me through this crisis.

So I’ve decided to come home to be with my parents until further notice. And I’m really relishing it. Having them around, getting to interact with them about mundane things, eating mom’s cooking. I am well and truly enjoying this. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I look at them through a different lens – the change isn’t quite that drastic. But I certainly appreciate them more.

And the same goes for my partner, who currently is under government quarantine in Vietnam as he was on a flight with a passenger who tested positive. And the same again for my closest friend who – this reminds me – I should message and maybe call at some point this weekend, to check in on them.

In normal times, my closest friend and I would meet up maybe 3-4 times a year. And outside those dinners, we’d have very limited interaction – there would be no message or call to check in on how each other is doing. And this is my closest friend who is very dear to me.

Looking back, I’m almost appalled at my lack of effort to check in more frequently and just have conversations with them about random things. Why did I feel that it was enough just to meet my closest friend face-to-face once every 3-4 months? And have little to no interaction outside that?

So those are the groups of people in my life I feel less socially distant to in this time of social distancing and isolation: work people, social media people, and my inner-most circle. And this, to me, is a very positive development in my life.

Maybe my feelings about this will change in the upcoming weeks. Maybe I’ll begin missing the face-to-face interaction with the work people at the office and start cursing this WFH arrangement. Maybe I’ll change my mind about reaching out to the real people in my life who now live on Instagram. Maybe I’ll forget to write that message to my closest friend. Life, and busy-ness, has a way of bringing you along and changing your planned course.

But that’s the beauty of it. If life were predictable, it would be no fun – would it?

4 thoughts on “Socially distant?

  1. It is interesting, the ways in which changing our working routines have affected us. Maybe a reminder that we need to be aware of when we are too much in our habits and taking things for granted, intentionally or otherwise. Hope you are staying healthy – although being at your parents, I have no doubt you are eating well!

  2. I have just reconnected with my friends on Social Media too. I made an effort to check on them,send them a message. I have called my family members more than once a week now, it used to be every other month or something with work and all.

    Like you, I just say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ or nod when I see people at work but never really interacted with most of them.

    WFH is changing work and life indeed!

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