About this word
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In this mixed up time of the Corvid-19, two meanings have been attached to the term “social distance”. The Center for Disease Control uses the term “social distance” now as advice to keep separate from other people . This is now the most commonly meaning. But “social distance” also has been used to refer to social separation, even when we may share physical space. For example, servants and their employers were socially distant, even when they were in the same room. One might even keep “social distance” while sharing a meal at a common table, by staying “aloof”. (https://blog.oup.com/2020/04/keeping-social-distance-the-story-of-aloof/)

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) definition is frequently cited.  And it acknowledges the potential confusion by noting that the intended meaning could also be called “physical distancing”:

Social distancing, also called “physical distancing,” means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home. To practice social or physical distancing:
— Stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) from other people
— Do not gather in groups
— Stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/social-distancing.html
(Retrieved on April 15, 2020)

Perhaps the term social distance will merge these two meanings – with the effect of making social distance compatible with social solidarity. In fact it seems we are managing to use the term “social distancing” in a way that doesn’t involve staying aloof or socially separate. We may actually reduce “social distance” in the first meaning when we practice social distancing.  When I went to have my car inspected last month, I put my keys on the counter at the auto shop, stepped back from the counter, and said “I won’t be offended if you want to wipe or disinfect the keys”. I wanted to make sure we kept social solidarity in these times of social distancing! So, when we stay separate from others, we may find ways to indicate that social distance involves respect, and is not a social slight.

Another twist on the term “social distancing” is the playful inversion suggested by Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, who suggests trying “distant socializing” while practicing “social distance”!

Either way – whether “socializing at a distance” or practicing respectful and friendly “social distancing” – we’re certainly more aware now of our language. We need this awareness to appreciate our physical space – our natural environment – and our need for social solidarity.

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