Skip to main content

Melissa Glass, left, and Angela King bump elbows while a parent takes a photograph as they offer curbside meals at Austinville Elementary on March 18, 2020, in Decatur, Ala.Dan Busey/The Associated Press

Olga Khazan is an award-winning writer for The Atlantic, covering health and science, and the author of the forthcoming book Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.

A few weeks ago, just before major North American cities began closing down their bars and restaurants, some friends and I were wrapping up a pleasant dinner of Indian food, which was only slightly soured by the looming threat of coronavirus. Though aggressive social-distancing measures were not yet in place, the rapidly spreading pandemic was all over the news. As had been recommended by health officials, my friends and I had been seated far from other customers. We had avoided taking public transit to get there.

After we stood to pay and leave, there was a moment of indecision. Do we hug? We had already been told not to get too close to others. But we generally hug! Instead, there was a moment where we all slowly recognized what was happening, waved at each other from a few feet apart, and walked away. It was an awkward change to the norms of our relationship – but just one of many more to come.

All over the United States, Italy and so many other countries, people are practising physical distancing (as the World Health Organization has now renamed "social distancing”) to avoid the spread of COVID-19. While this is the correct and safe thing to do, it is nevertheless messing with our minds a little. So many of the rituals we have around work, friendships and relationships revolve around rules that have been upended overnight. A friend recently texted me to say she was going to ask me out for brunch, but now she knew she couldn’t, so instead she was just messaging me to say she thought about it. I see people in my neighbourhood out on walks, contemplating petting each others’ dogs, before deciding they probably shouldn’t. Another friend is due to have a baby any day now, but I may not be able to see her until she’s a year old.

And we’re the ones who are actually taking physical distancing seriously. All over the country, there are reports of spring breakers partying their nihilistic hearts out, people playing pick-up basketball and St. Patrick’s Day revellers cramming into bars, apparently willing to risk more than a hangover.

Though frustrating, it’s perhaps understandable why so many people have trouble changing their ways so suddenly. Our day-to-day behaviours are determined by norms, and norms are notoriously intractable. Everything from office small talk to who pays on a first date is determined by these unyielding rules. Most people want to follow norms, and they like people who do, because we don’t want to be surprised by every single thing that happens.

Norms do, of course, have an upside. North America’s tipping norm pays people’s salaries; monogamists’ fidelity norm makes for stable families. The problem is that norms are very sticky. By their nature, they resist change. Humans are deeply suspicious of norm violators; we judge people who break norms harshly. Therefore, trying to shift norms en masse within a matter of weeks is as difficult as trying to back a Range Rover out of a packed garage. As Chris Crandall, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, told me: “Norms are inherently conservative. We tend to persist in doing what the people before us did.”

The norm is that we have face-to-face meetings. The norm is that we see our friends for brunch. The norm is that you’d offer to go visit your elderly parents if they were scared of a pandemic tearing its way through the world. It’s non-normative – weird, in other words – to say, “no, I’m not going to come over, because I want to keep you safe.” The norm has long dictated that togetherness is safe.

But for public-health officials, changing these norms quickly is imperative. And luckily, there’s precedent that even very entrenched norms can be changed. Princeton University professor Betsy Levy Paluck discovered this a few years ago in a study based in Rwanda, where the Hutu-majority government had perpetrated a genocide against the Tutsi ethnic group in 1994. Three-quarters of the Tutsi population died as a result, and even after the death ended, trauma remained.

Between 2003 and 2007, Dr. Paluck travelled to the country to study the effects of a popular Rwandan radio soap opera called Musekeweya, which translates to New Dawn. It was produced by a non-violence non-profit and it aimed to ease ethnic tensions. The program portrayed two ethnic groups who worked together and spoke out against violence, and even included a Romeo-and-Juliet-like storyline about two lovers from different communities. Over the course of a year, Dr. Paluck studied the attitudes of Rwandans who were exposed either to the New Dawn program, or to a control program about an unrelated topic.

Her results were either disappointing or uplifting, depending on how you look at it. The New Dawn program didn’t change the community’s beliefs about violence, trauma or war. The people who had listened to the “correct” messages about violence were still just as likely to believe that “evil people” cause violence, rather than more practical factors such as passive bystanders or a lack of open dissent and intergroup connections. They still dismissed traumatized people as just crazy people who couldn’t recover.

But the New Dawn listeners’ broader norms – and their behaviours – shifted. They became less likely to advise their children to marry only within their own ethnic group. They grew more tolerant of dissent and were more likely to say that trauma survivors should talk about their struggles with someone. Dr. Paluck’s experiment showed, in essence, that we will often uphold whatever we perceive the norm to be, even if our minds don’t change accordingly. People will endorse a norm, even when their personal beliefs completely contradict it. (Just ask any “cool boss” who has had to drug-test an employee.)

There are plenty of far less extreme examples of norms shifting rather quickly. Most people resent office buzzwords, such as synergy and “circle back,” but we use them anyway because it’s what’s expected in the office. Just a few years ago, it was common for men to hit on women just walking down the street or riding public transportation. But the #MeToo movement has made that much more frowned-upon, and now men are more likely to keep their seduction attempts to dating apps.

Because the coronavirus pandemic is so unprecedented, we shouldn’t expect people to think that distancing themselves from their loved ones is normal. It’s decidedly not. In fact, it’s probably good for people to feel like they’re acting a bit strangely, since we don’t want social connections to fray entirely during this unusual time.

But government officials and concerned citizens everywhere can still set the norm: Stay home as much as possible. Yes, it’s difficult, sudden and new, but people must follow this new social rule. It may just save our lives.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.