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Social norms jolted by coronavirus distancing

Michael Tortorich
Plaquemine Post South

Gatherings with family and friends are familiar interludes of spring. 

This year, though, physical distancing has been top of mind due to the coronavirus outbreak. The crisis has hampered the usual celebrations of the season. 

Though Louisianans have endured devastating events like hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the 2016 floods, this crisis brings different aspects to its effect on society.

Troy C. Blanchard, Professor of Sociology and Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at LSU, said such crises shift the arc of society.

He referred to an “X factor” in the crisis - the mass transition to remote access. A vast segment of the workforce has been working from home by utilizing the tools of the Internet.

Four months ago, we weren’t doing that,” Blanchard said.

Virtual meeting products like Zoom allow users to communicate through Web-based video conferencing. Co-workers can meet online via either mobile or desktop applications.

Though the move to online communication happened quickly as workplaces closed, Blanchard pointed out that most relationships were already well established.

Blanchard used the transition of his co-workers as an example. Like a scaffold, which can be built upon itself, their rapport has been structured from an initial face-to-face foundation. 

It was scaffolded by years and years of in-person meetings and relationships,” he said.

For his workplace, the social dynamic was one of a community where the individuals had worked together for an extended period of time. In their case, the transition to the Internet was “seamless and efficient,” he said.

As the coronavirus crisis continues, a sense of longing for normalcy in social interaction remains for many. As Blanchard explained, physical distancing has affected the retail landscape, as well as “cocktail hours and church services.”

That is an area that’s exceptionally interesting,” he said.

Some religious services have been live streamed via online applications, but the sense of community of a church cannot be “outsourced,” as Blanchard said.

He pointed out well-known pastor Joel Osteen as an example. Though Osteen’s sermons are broadcast to millions of viewers, his Lakewood Church in Houston still attracts an average of 52,000 attendees per week. 

A religious service notching similar attendance figures to a football game is not a one-off. Many megachurches across the country are attended by thousands on a weekly basis.

Blanchard said there is social capital inherent in developing in-person relationships. These interactions can bring trust and reciprocity, what he called “the borrow a cup of sugar idea.” The initial favor can lead to a give-and-take of mutual generosity.  

How well does the concept translate to the online space?

It’s early, and we don’t know yet,” Blanchard said.

He suspects there is a demand for in-person interaction.

Long term, the ideal Friday night won’t be over Zoom,” he quipped.

Some things in life cannot be replaced by a webinar. People are missing dinner parties, visits, and cocktail hours, Blanchard said. 

These are where we establish strong relationships that have a lot of social and emotional value,” he explained.

Cultural practices are ingrained deeply into society, especially in the rich traditions of south Louisiana.

It would be difficult to change Mardi Gras,” Blanchard said. “Handshakes and hugs are part of our culture.”

Returning to a sense of normalcy will involve a transition for society. Guidelines have promoted six-foot distancing and avoiding physical contact, among other recommendations. 

Will the pandemic have a lasting effect on everyday behavior?

That’s where the most interesting questions are,” Blanchard said. “We will think twice for a while.”