In normal times, the IGA in Madeira Park, B.C., is a cheery cacophony of small-town small talk. Upbeat “how-are-yas” ring down the aisles as locals pick up dinner with a side of gossip. As with most single-grocer towns, the supermarket is as much a social hub as a commercial one.
But as the pandemic descended, the lighthearted conversations got heavy, and it started to take a toll on cashiers.
“It was the same every day: How are you? You hanging in there? You okay? How are you coping?” said Troy Callewaert, the owner of the store, two hours north of Vancouver by ferry and a twisty two-lane highway. “We have great customers, and it’s their way of trying to help and show concern, but when you hear that 500 times a day, it was starting to wear staff down.”
The cashiers’ conundrum is being felt the world over. As economic and health conditions have shifted abruptly over the past three weeks, so too have conversation patterns. Where once “How are you?” was a pro forma part of any greeting sequence, it has become weighed down with new and sometimes dreary significance. For so many right now, it’s going badly. Answering the question repeatedly can reinforce the gloom.
Yet, we can’t help ourselves. Rarely have so many been so compelled to talk so much. Isolation makes the desire more acute.
“We’re living in the state of cognitive dissonance right now,” said Susan Pinker, a developmental psychologist and author of The Village Effect, about the myriad health benefits of a rich social network and regular face-to-face contact. “We all know we’re supposed to stay away from one another. All the physical and emotional comforts we depend on have been withdrawn. But we still want it. It is a very basic human drive, like eating, sleeping and drinking.”
Ms. Pinker cites a recent social neuroscience study that found hunger and social isolation engage the same areas of the brain, suggesting humans need food and social contact on a primal level. “We’ve clearly evolved to need both for survival,” she said.
Pandemic stress has amplified that need. Anita DeLongis, a health psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has studied the psychological impacts of several recent outbreaks, such as SARS and West Nile virus. Last month, she and collaborator Nancy Sim launched a continuing survey of peoples’ responses to COVID-19. More than 3,000 participants have signed up, many offering voluminous answers.
“When you ask ‘How are you?’ right now, it’s like opening an overfilled closet – people’s experiences of this pandemic just come pouring out,” Dr. DeLongis said. “We’re finding there’s a need for people to express what they’re going through and to share that experience in a way we’ve never seen before."
She says health psychology researchers often talk about respondents as “monitors” or “blunters.” Blunters tend to repress and avoid stressors. Monitors are the opposite. In this crisis, everyone is a monitor.
The best release valve for stress of any kind is social interaction, researchers say. Loneliness has been associated with reduction in lifespan comparable to cigarette smoking or obesity. Even small talk helps. “Exchanging little pleasantries is a rejuvenating thing,“ Ms. Pinker said.
In these days of enforced social isolation, opportunities for face-to-face pleasantries have narrowed. People are cut off from family, friends, bartenders and therapists. For those who live alone, the grocery store cashier can be a lifeline. A simple exchange at the checkout becomes as nourishing as chicken soup.
The IGA staff have taken note of the phenomenon. “We’re like counsellors now – that’s not something I thought I’d be doing as a grocery store owner,” Mr. Callewaert said.
When it became a problem, he knew he couldn’t squelch his customers’ desire to talk. Such a move would be unhealthy and counterproductive. So he did what any psychologist might have advised and asked for a change in tone.
“As you can imagine with the current situation and the amount of people they interact with each day [staff] would like to ask that if possible you could keep your conversations positive and something other than the covid 19,” he wrote on the store’s Facebook page. “This will not only be good for them but for you as well.”
He also turned off the store’s TVs, with their dismal news highlights.
“They can talk about something else,” he said. “Ask about the weekend or the storm that happened last night or the garden, something else.”
So far, the request has worked. “It’s definitely helped,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is trying to keep our community healthy."
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.