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Social Distancing or Distant Socialising | Qatar University

Social Distancing or Distant Socialising

2020-04-23 00:00:00.0
د. حسام

By Mohammad Hosam Alnahas - Lecturer of English, Qatar University

Ever since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the term, ‘social distancing’ has been widely used in the media to refer to certain behaviors that should be adopted by people to limit the spread of the virus and its concomitant worries. However, an argument has ensued about the appropriateness of this term, which has potentially negative connotations and could be interpreted as such by the public in this context.
In fact, use of the term, ‘social distancing’ is far from new. McKenna (2007) wrote about how ‘social distancing’ helped cities survive the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, referring to measures of social control – such as the banning of gatherings and closure of schools, which eventually slowed the advance of the pandemic.
Back in 1924, Robert E. Park, then Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, stated that ‘distance’ evokes “degrees of understanding and intimacy”. Defining ‘social distance’, Park wrote, “We frequently say of A that he is very ‘close’ to B, but that C is distant and reserved, but that D, on the other hand, is open-minded, sympathetic, understanding, and generally ‘easy to meet’. All these expressions describe and to some extent measure ‘social distance’”. Evidently, Park was highlighting how one’s physical distance from others mirrors one’s individual characteristics or relationships.
However, it could also be argued that the term, ‘social distancing’ equally conveys other meanings. For instance, the verb ‘to distance’ is defined as “mak[ing] or maintain[ing] a personal or emotional separation from”. In this noun phrase (‘social distancing’), the adjective, ‘social’ modifies or qualifies the verbal noun, ‘distancing’, thereby potentially implying something other than the intended concept of creating physical distance. Since ‘distancing’ is described as ‘social’ here, it could be interpreted as the creation of distance from others in social relationships, meaning reduced social connection with others overall.
Subsequent to the controversy stirred up by this term, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently suggested replacing it with ‘physical distancing’ (Tangermann, 2020). Nevertheless, in the media, ‘social distancing’ is still in use almost everywhere.
Besides ‘physical distancing’, ‘distant socializing’ could also be considered as an alternative. While both terms convey the message of creating physical distance for protection, the emphasis in the latter is on maintaining a social connection in the process, which is crucial at this time. It is a matter of concern that since people are being encouraged to meet less often in person, they could also be failing to communicate with each other by any other means. This would lead to reduced socializing in general or enforced isolation, whereupon ‘social distance’ would become social disconnection.
Coronavirus is not transmitted through communication with others; rather, it could be passed on if people get physically close to a source of infection. Therefore, it is ‘distant socializing’ or ‘physical distancing’ that should be exercised, instead of ‘social distancing’. In fact, it is more important than ever that we endeavor to stay closely connected!


To distance. (2020). Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from this link.

McKenna, M. (2007). Social distancing helped some cities endure 1918 pandemic. Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), 3rd April. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from this link

Park, R. (1924). The concept of social distance as applied to the study of racial attitudes and racial relations. Journal of Applied Sociology, 8, 339-344.

Tangermann, V. (2020). The WHO wants you to ditch the phrase “social distancing”. The Byte, 20th March. Retrieved from this link.