Editorial Notebook

COVID-19 increases the weight of social interactions

There are people in my life now whose full faces I’ve never seen. Each time that occurs to me it seems just as absurd as it did before. The few people I let myself be around maskless are my bubble, my gathering of no more than 10, my saved contacts in the Daily Interactions & Activities Log. The pandemic has made us all consider carefully who, and who not, to let into our bubbles.

My first two weeks in Troy were the loneliest two weeks I’d had up until then. As a new transfer student, I was quarantining alone off-campus and knew basically no one at Rensselaer. I tried calling some friends from community college, but they were all either living together or living in dorms and making new friends. My only interactions during that with people from RPI were online classes, meetings with The Polytechnic, and the many hours I spent lurking on the many affiliated Discord servers.

I finally ended up meeting a few people in person and making carefully distanced conversation outside with the fresh air to keep us safe, awkwardly uncertain of our boundaries. My social life didn’t really change until one of the people I met invited me to hang out with the rest of his friend group. I finally had a group I loved being around who I could relax my social distancing with. But as happy as I was, I had to do a little purging. If I was going to be closer to these people, they would have to be the only people I was close to. I ended up removing most external interactions and sticking to my bubble, losing some interactions that, in another time, could have been wonderful friendships of their own.

While my story’s nothing out of the ordinary, some have had more extreme experiences with the purging of social bubbles. One of my friends from home, Kate, had made a very close friend who she de-distanced from, spending hours together in late night conversation. Until one day, Kate hugged another friend who was feeling sad. When she told the first friend that this had happened, the response was decisive. The friend told Kate that she needed to re-evaluate her bubble to be small and self-contained and that if Kate wanted to hang out with other people, she wouldn’t be able to be in that friend’s bubble. Kate told me afterwards that she felt like she’d been ditched for cheating on her friend, like this was some sort of exclusive relationship that she had been disloyal to.

Not everyone has had an experience that direct, but the truth is that we have all had to narrow down the list of people we could be close to in order to be safer about COVID. Choosing to be around someone a lot means trusting them to be safe and responsible. Simple interactions like meeting someone for a meal at one of the dining halls mean deciding they’re worth removing masks for. Direct physical contact is now so much more serious than the casual pre-COVID high five, shoulder tap, or handshake.

Stories like Kate’s show how stressful it can be to navigate this higher-stakes social landscape and the importance of clearly communicating expectations, just like in any other relationship. While it may be your decision how many people you can fit in your bubble and how close you can be to them and to anyone outside, it’s also the right of every person you interact with to know your policies to decide if they are okay with them.

This Thanksgiving, I’ve had a lot to think about. I’ve been so lucky in these strange and isolating times to find people around me and still feel safe. I’m thankful for our strict and effective campus policies that allowed me to be here in person through a whole semester. I’m thankful for the cotton swabs I have had to shove up my nose twice a week that assure me that the people I care about and I are still safe. I’m thankful for everyone who has been in my bubble and allowed me in theirs. And to everyone else I met and could have known better, thank you for that brief glimpse of yourself, and thank you for understanding when I drifted away. There are people in my life now whose full faces I’ve never seen. Some of them will stay that way.