The Last Thing We Need Is More Social Distance

I’ve decided I really don’t like the term “social distance”. I believe that our society is “socially distant” in enough supremely unhealthy ways already. We’re in a *touch*-starvation epidemic. Many of us don’t know our neighbors, anxiety, and depression are rampant across the generations (no, it’s NOT “those damn Millenials” suffering alone here), we don’t trust anyone, and in that same vein, we aren’t vulnerable enough to even *be* trust-worthy. (“Hi, random stranger who I know nothing about.”). There are fewer and fewer communal ties or social covenants binding us together, and it shows.

Maybe instead of “social distance” we could allow for wider “physical distance” during this health crisis (or whenever it’s appropriate), but simultaneously we need to actively look at ways to combat *social* distance by nurturing healthy friendships, getting to know the people we live and work around a little better, and reconsider the value of “community” as a concept.

The term community gets thrown around a lot. I would say that we need more in common than just a single intersection of experience.

Living in a neighborhood clearly does NOT create “community”. How many of you can even name the people who live next door, or three doors down? Would you ask them to check your mail? Invite them to a BBQ? Ask them to pick up your kids from school? Depend on them in a crisis? Would they depend on YOU in a crisis? Geographic proximity isn’t enough.

In a more esoteric sense, the idea of community is often used for marginalized or “checkbox” populations. For example, my spouse is non-gender-normative, and we spend time in trans* space periodically. If gender identity (or ethnic background, religious affiliation, marital status, generational identifier…) is the only thing you’ve got in common, you’re not a “community”. You’re a demographic label.

So what does “community” actually look like, and how can we create healthier, stronger social connections to build communities that nurture, support, and help the individual members grow and thrive?

When I googled “How to build a strong community” the first eleventy zillion pages of results were all focused on creating a social media following, and while I’m ALL about making more IG connections or gathering followers for my speaking business, I have to say, I’m a little stunned that there aren’t more resources for actually creating connections in the real world. This is symptomatic of our tendency to replace actual connections with the much more fragile (and far more artificial) connections provided by social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve made amazing friends online, some of whom I’ve known for almost thirty years now, and I’ve only had the opportunity to connect with a small handful of them in person. Those relationships that have lasted for decades all have something in common — the connections go beyond the single point of interest where we originally connected, and instead are based on a rich tapestry of shared experiences, interests, and needs.

So I went digging in the sociology stacks trying to find what it means to have a strong community, and found Flora’s description of “social capital”, defined as “the relationships and networks within a social structure where individuals contribute to the common good.” That’s as good a place as any to start. Having strong, healthy relationships is seen as a major predictor of all kinds of really great outcomes, whether it’s recovering from illness, experiencing life satisfaction, good professional outcomes, decreased risk of suicide, the list continues to grow.

I believe that before we can connect and build those relationships with others, we need to know who we are, at a pretty basic level. I remember reading about people “finding themselves” when I was a kid and thinking that was such a weird idea — how do you not know who you are?? As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve found that an enormous number of people actually haven’t really spent time learning who they ARE, and who they actually WANT to be. Not what they want to be… but rather what kind of person they want to be.

Do you know what your values are? I mean, do you really, seriously know? I ask this question a lot, working with coaching clients or speaking with groups, and it’s both intellectually fascinating and empathetically distressing how often people give me a blank stare.

At best, people sort of take the package of values and norms handed to them by their parents or their social circle and just run with them, never pausing to consider if they even actually believe in or align with those foundational concepts.

Once you’ve got a grip on the sort of person you are, or want to work on becoming, then you can go out and find people who are compatible with you. It doesn’t mean you need to find clones of yourself (I think this is where religious communities are sometimes short-sighted, actually), but let’s be honest. If a core value is “Personal Growth” and the people you hang out with are more into “Traditionalism” you might have a conflict — and that’s not to say either camp is wrong. Please be careful about framing values as “good” or “bad”. Remember, we’re trying to build more social connections, not recreate the Crusades. ;)

Unsure of how to build from those values into something resembling social connections? Back to Google we go! There are about a gazillion articles on ways to develop good friendships. If this is something you’ve struggled with, I invite you to do your own searches and find the ideas that resonate — and then go out (or reach out virtually… ) and give it a whirl.

Getting to know the people who live in your neighborhood can feel a little more daunting. When I was a kid, it was rare for a “New Person” to move in, but in today’s world, we’re more mobile, and less connected, than ever. I really love this article from Houzz: 9 Non-Awkward Ways to Meet Your Neighbors. When we were trying to get to know our local peeps, we took the completely weird approach of just saying “Hi!” in a friendly tone of voice to the people who live around us (Happiness Is Courage, after all!). It was a great starting point and while I wouldn’t say we’re BFF’s with any of our neighbors, we do participate in cookie swaps, check each other’s mail, offer jumper cable when cars act up, and so on, and we feel a lot more connected to our neighborhood as a result.

I know people are unsettled, or even just scared right now, and that’s OK. Rather than further eroding the connections with our friends, neighbors, and communities in fear, we can grow stronger and actually create LESS social distance through this experience. If you want more ideas for how to reach out and find community while you wait for this health challenge to pass, here’s a great article with “40 Ways to Maintain Social Ties.”

Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin has taken the career path less traveled, and that breadth and depth of experience fuels her unwavering drive for excellence, authentic empathy, and an insatiable curiosity that allows her to see the world through an innovative and creative lens. By day, she’s the Chief Happiness Officer at a global corporation. A radical positivity activity, she’s also the owner of Happiness Is Courage Inc., sharing her message of hope, happiness, and gratitude as avenues to greater personal and professional resilience and well-being. She has spoken at conferences across North America, facilitated numerous workshops on workplace excellence, and worked with groups from 1 to 200+ to discover and embrace their personal strengths, ambitions and relationship goals. She and her spouse Kris, a certified Laughter Yoga leader himself, travel extensively sharing the joy and power of laughter and positivity with organizations of all sizes and industries.


  1. Despite being widely used, the expression “social distancing” can be misleading. To combat COVID-19, we should encourage the strengthening of social ties while maintaining physical distance. This change will help stop linking “sociability” with a negative concept. Currently the technology is so advanced that it allows us to stay in touch in many ways, without being physically in the same room or in the same space with other people.

  2. Thank you for your valuable and meaningful article, Sarah. Here’s what I’ll offer from an essay I recently wrote: Nothing replaces the in-person acceptance, kindness, rapt attention-listening, loving hugs, tenderness, grace, honesty, curiosity, compassionate energy presence of another human being. Nothing. The article is titled, “Finding Emotional Closeness as We Stand at a Distance.” We are hard-wired for connection-in person, looking in each other’s eyes, holding hands, hugging, shaking hands, being present with one another. This keeps us human and humane full of heart and soul.

  3. This is a brilliant and valuable piece, Sarah! We’ve been socially distancing for a long time now. I wrote a piece not too long ago about interaction in the social media space. But one of the examples I shared was the post office. Every time I go into the PO, I have a choice: use the machine or wait for a clerk. I choose the machine every single time. Why is it that the more technology we have to connect, the more disconnected we become?

  4. Sarah you need to set your article in gold. We as people haven’t changed but our culture and society certainly have. So much less trust, so much more paranoia. My older sister admitted one time, they’d lived in the same neighborhood for over 15 years and didn’t know some of their neighbors who’d been there that long too. Our society and culture and way of business may change, but we need connection, real connection. Hugging, touching, holding hands, crying on a shoulder.
    Otherwise, we are no different than AI robot/computers we’ve become addicted to that do everything we do, except the two most vital human traits: love and create things.

    • I feel like I stand with a foot in both worlds on this, Laurie! I’ve moved so many times (we are a former military family) and while on base we felt like we were part of something greater than just a zip code, in civilian life I’ve found that to be far less warm and welcoming, generally, so I understand why people feel the fear and separation, but I crave the sense of connection that just can’t grow if we give in to those fears and uncertainties. And I’ve watched this tsunami of “social anxiety” rob us, all of us, of opportunities to get that physical connection that we’ve evolved to need (not want…. need). Thank you so much for your kind words. I know we can figure out a path forward that gets us to a better place. ♥