Sean Moncrieff: You don’t know as many people as you think

My pre-lockdown number of daily interactions isn’t that much higher than it is now

Even before coronavirus we all lived in bubbles. Photograph: Getty Images

Even before coronavirus we all lived in bubbles. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Because we are in a time when the mind starts to wonder, I tried calculating how many people I’ve been coming into physical contact with. On a work day, I leave the house and walk to the Dart station. I may pass one or two people. We nod or wave but studiously avoid each other. The Dart station is usually deserted. On the train there may be a couple of people, but we all sit so far away we can’t really see each other. Often, there are more security guards than passengers.

The centre of Dublin is a bit livelier; though that’s a relative term. Imagine Dublin at 6am on a bank holiday. Everything is closed, and most of the noise is generated by sirens and empty buses and Luas trams swishing by. There are some pedestrians and homeless people crouched in doorways. Everyone avoids everyone else. Emboldened by the lack of humans, there are seagulls everywhere.

As I get closer to work, the streets become almost completely deserted. There is one food outlet that sells half-decent coffee, so I call in there. Gloves on, two metres away from anyone else. The coffee is slid out underneath a Perspex screen, but at least here there is a human who takes my order and at the end we thank each other. I often get the sense that even in these transactional moments, people are trying to be more pleasant, to freight it with a significance.

Despite all the noise and busyness, our lives are far more constrained than we might imagine.

In work, an open-plan office that usually accommodates more than 70 people now has less than 10; everyone sitting as far as possible from each other. Conversations are conducted loudly, and from a distance. I get to directly speak to two people. Everyone else is on a phone line or some variant of video call.

Most of the time, it’s very quiet.

I’ve been wondering how different this is from my life before; at least in terms of face-to-face contact. Academics and others have attempted various calculations of how many people the “average” person comes in contact with in the course of a lifetime (the average person invariably being American) and the conclusions vary wildly: from 10,000 up to 80,000. But “contact” can mean anything. It would include the person behind the Perspex screen who slides out my coffee. 

When it comes to contact that is slightly more intimate – where you chat about something, where you know their name – the number is depressingly low. It’s in the hundreds. Over the course of a lifetime. Despite all the noise and busyness, our lives are far more constrained than we might imagine. Every day, we tramp the same invisible paths, we meet the same people. My pre-lockdown number of daily interactions isn’t that much higher than it was afterwards.

When all this is over

The hugging-and-learning bit of this should be that when all this is over, we need to make an effort to talk to more people. Easier said than done, though. Those of us with a job to go back to will have to work harder than ever to resurrect our economy. There may not be the time.

Anyway, more doesn’t necessarily mean better. Talking to more people might just introduce more idiocy into your life. I’m not greatly interested in speaking to anyone who thinks 5G caused the coronavirus.

But perhaps what can be learned from this is to do with what we know. Or what we think we know. Our view of things is disproportionately influenced by the people around us; and from that comes a lot of our opinions and certainties. We often make pronouncements about the world, or Ireland, but what we’re really talking about is our immediate social circle. Saying I don’t know anyone who watches the Late Late Show/votes Fine Gael/has been in a threesome (there’s an interesting night out) is meaningless. Because actually, we don’t know that many people. We all live in bubbles.

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