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Reconditioning our Social Interactions

Our social interactions are based on learned behavior, most of which are automatic. I often offer up a funny half-smile to strangers while walking past them on the street. I mention this smile because I have been aware that I offer this contort from my face in no other circumstance. It is an impulse and is not thought out behavior. Our daily lives are filled with actions, gestures, and comments that we use without forethought. They are built into our muscle memory and subconscious. These instincts define culture, and without doubt, culture shifts and changes at a regular and steady pace. Every culture, city, and community have their own ticks, quirks, and sayings that define their unity. Every once in a while a culture may find itself in need of consciously and strategically planning and implementing for social behavioral change. Right now, we are in this particular time of need.

While my grandmother was pregnant with her second child her doctor prescribed Camel cigarettes to calm her nerves and help with digestion. She remembers him smoking in his office while giving her a handwritten prescription. Times change and social behaviors shift. When I was younger my doctor warned me against the hazards of smoking but it was still socially common and accepted behavior. There were smoking and nonsmoking sections in restaurants and even airplanes and every bar was awash with a haze. Today, no one would even consider smoking in a public building. In fact, it is socially expected that people shouldn’t smoke within 20 feet of a building entrance so that the nonsmoking members of our community are not exposed to secondhand smoke. Today the social distancing of smoking is expected, understood, and considered polite by our social standards.

Due to our contemporary issues with COVID-19, we need to reconsider our social behaviors and establish new methods that help all of our citizens feel safe. The analogy of smoking works well for this example. Smokers are comfortable breathing other people’s second-hand smoke. Non-smokers are offended when confronted with the situation, and most of us now consider it rude to force non-smokers into a situation wherein they are obliged to speak up for themselves. Wearing a mask in today’s society should be analogous to not smoking.

It is time for us to consider the actions that need to be taken so that we can socially recondition ourselves for the comfort and safety of our society. Remember that if you don’t believe in mask-wearing, your friends and neighbors might be uncomfortable with your naked face. Their discomfort should outweigh your dislike of the masked condition. Soon it may become the social standard.

Of course, masks are the most obvious example and fit the smoking analogy. I urge that we look much deeper. For example, I am a hand shaker. I like to look someone in the eye, shake their hand and say hello. I like to hold doors open for people. I hug friends and family members. My methods of communication are strongest face to face, and up close and personal. All of these are simple and personal examples of methods I use to socially interact with people. Simple as they are, these are also things that help define me within social settings. They are habits, and I now realize that even though I use these methods of interaction to help people feel comfortable and listened to, these very same actions might now make someone feel unsafe or uneasy. I might also be considered a close stander. I mumble and have a soft voice and so I stand close to people to compensate for these downfalls. It is time for me to stand six feet back and speak up clearly.

The difficulty in socially reconditioning will come in the consideration of multicultural, multilingual societies. In full transparency, I often find that I have miscommunication issues with the people closest to me. I also should state that I have more questions than I have answers. Wearing masks, shaking hands, standing too close are just a few simple suggestions to spur your own thoughts of how you are conditioned to interact with other people. I ask you to consider what makes you uncomfortable in this current pandemic situation. And, even more importantly, what do you do which may make someone else uncomfortable.

Visual Philosophy is asking. We want to know. We are developing a new series of team building events for businesses in preparation for reopening after the shelter in place orders are eased. The goal of these events is to teach art and provide employers and employees a safe place to discuss these issues. We will also be using these team building events as a platform to help our city recondition our social behaviors with the intent of creating a safe and healthy environment that will help us rebuild and reconnect. The Team Building events will be built as a springboard for other arts organizations throughout the city with different ethnic bases and insights than we have at Visual Philosophy to utilize these tools. We want this to be a unified, citywide, grassroots San Jose movement. We are calling this idea Safely Social San Jose. Please contact us with your insights as well as to get more information as we move forward.

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