Friendship in the Time of Pandemic

How are you?

It’s a simple enough question. One that we ask without thinking sometimes, and it isn’t always as probing as it sounds. We’re likely to get (and often expect) an “I’m good” or “Fine, thanks” in response. And so it becomes more like a greeting than a genuine enquiry. But our anticipation of the answer (or lack thereof) doesn’t make the question any less caring. The sentiment is still there. We’re trying to connect (and sometimes people surprise us by telling the truth and we have a much longer conversation!). In fact, the act of asking it is just as important for us as it for the recipient to have someone to share with. The problem these days, is we don’t get a chance to ask the question. At least not the way we once did.

One year on and we’re still living on Zoom and sticking close to home. Sure, if you’re not living through another round of lockdowns, you can get to a grocery store, go to a park, and even meet in a small group at a café or restaurant. However, masks, the observance of a refrain from contact, the public scrutiny of conduct, and a general permeating fear, have inhibited natural communication. Bumping into people and having a casual conversation is more awkward. The incidental chats we would normally share with acquaintances, neighbours, delivery people, regulars we pass each morning on our walks, the barista who makes our daily brew, and our hairdresser, have become perfunctory, brief and stilted if they haven’t disappeared altogether.

We are contactless.

Now we’re more selective as to who we have interactions with. We reserve meagre social time for our closest friends and family. And because of that, there is an increased intensity to our conversations. We can’t have fleeting exchanges full of brevity and lightness or ask casual “How are you?” with grandparents online the same way we would with the guy we see each morning at the gym. There is a weight and gravity to the question now. And it can be exhausting for both the asker and the responder. Because we all know we’re about to give or hear the latest instalment in how this dreary saga is affecting us personally. And so there is less dimension to our lives. As we realise that the casual conversations we usually have on a daily basis, seemingly on the periphery of our lives, actually make up a good portion of our interactions, and shape our days. The bus driver and the person we buy bread from, the friend of a friend we bump into, the other parent waiting at the school gate, all introduce us to new ideas and aspects of the world because they are not always in our orbit. They bring back news of their worlds and even bring us laughter and joy. And then we share those ideas amongst our nearest and dearest. 

So, friendship. It takes many forms. Those on our outer fringes are no less valuable than the ones we hold close. Now more than ever, engaging in the full spectrum of companionship is important to our overall happiness. And asking people we see whose names we may not ever know, “How are you?” is as much about our survival as theirs.

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