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Individual social capital and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented interruption to physical social interaction. A significant proportion of the world’s population is in some form of isolation or lockdown, with limited access to normal social activities.

This has serious implications for social capital which is primarily built, maintained and realised by social interaction. Social capital is linked to physical and mental health and plays a vital role in meeting the requirements of everyday life. For most people social capital is very important for getting by. During a global pandemic many people feel like they are socially isolated, cut off, and alone.

Communication technologies mean we don’t have to be isolated

Unlike other past pandemics, such as the 1918 flu pandemic, we now have communication technologies such as video calling and instant messaging, so we don’t have to be isolated.

There are however some significant barriers to the effective use of these technologies. There are uncertainties about how to use these technologies appropriately and effectively, and this may create missed opportunities to build and maintain social capital.

The shift to reliance on remote social interaction has been comprehensive, disruptive and incredibly challenging

Casual and incidental interactions

We’ve realised the importance and value of casual and incidental interactions: the bus driver who says good morning and smiles, the nod of acknowledgement from the street vendor you pass every morning, the barista you talk to every morning but doesn’t know your name, the security guard in your building, the other people who work in your building, the neighbours who walk their dog past your house, and the old woman down the street who sits on her front porch.

For many people, they have been rapidly forced into reliance on these technologies. Some people may have been already familiar with the technologies, but for all but the most ardent users, the shift to remote social interaction has been comprehensive, disruptive and incredibly challenging.

Many people have had to rapidly transition from in-person meetings to workdays at home full of video meetings on Zoom or similar platforms. Personal lives have equally changed with physical disconnection from friends, family, and acquaintances. Many people feel like they are living in a social waste land; isolated and alone.

Remote social interaction is a poor replacement for in-person interaction

Connecting remotely, even by video, is a poor replacement for in-person interaction. It doesn’t feel the same. It is missing a closeness or authenticity in ways that are not easy to identify. Different communication technologies create differing degrees of ‘social presence’.

Social Presence

We can compare communication technologies to the degree of social presence they create, compared to in-person interaction. Video is typically considered to have the highest social presence, audio calls have less, instant messaging have less again, and asynchronous text-based interaction have the least social presence. The degree of social presence a technology creates is the result of the amount of verbal and non-verbal communication that is missing from the platform. If we are aware of what is missing, we can attempt to compensate by verbally communicating these messages. This, however, can feel very strange and most people lack the vocabulary and emotional intelligence to put their feelings accurately into words.

So, while remote social interaction is not as good as in-person interaction it is still an effective way to build and maintain social capital. In normal times, not during a global pandemic, we can use communication technologies to supplement in-person interaction to greatly improve our social capital.

Communication technologies provide cost-effective ways to maintain social relationships by removing the travel costs and reducing time investments. Repeat interaction, even if remotely, can strengthen relationship qualities such as trust, belonging and various norms.

Technologies, such as social media platforms, can create an enduring ‘connection’ mechanism for relationship maintenance, for example a ‘friend’ or ‘follower’. This essentially augments our memory by storing details of our social relationships and potentially and periodically reminding us of their existence. This allows social connections to endure longer and with less maintenance than would otherwise be possible.

Technology can be an important way to enhance your social capital by creating ‘cognitively supplemented’ relationships.

Now is a great time to use digital technology to reconnect, enhance, and maintain your existing social networks, and to build new connections with people online.

  • Make the effort to connect with your friends and family
  • Reconnect with old friends and distant family
  • See if you can make new connections with acquaintances from your community, workplace, interest groups, or political or professional associations
  • Seek out new connections with people with whom you share similar interests

A great idea during this pandemic is to see if you can connect with at least one person from each category above every day.

What’s stopping us?

The biggest barriers to doing this seems to be our beliefs about the importance of social interaction (and social capital) and our beliefs about others.

Social isolation is driven by beliefs about others

Many people hold false beliefs that everyone else is too busy, don’t want to connect, don’t care about them, or don’t also want and need to talk. It may also be driven by their own narcissism, or by fear of rejection, and for some people it’s just easier to sit on the couch and consume digital content.

It becomes easier when we consciously consider the importance of social capital, that everyone else needs social capital too, and that it’s worth the effort.

It’s important to realise that we have all been thrust into this situation and many of us are underprepared to be physically disconnected from our social network. This situation is not normal, and we need to not think of it as normal. We are all having to rapidly adjust and adapt to the current conditions. We all need to learn new skills and discover the appropriate and effective patterns of behaviour.

Uncertainty is a significant barrier to action

Most of us feel great uncertainty about how to maintain and build our social relationships online. There are few norms (normal and commonly accepted behaviours) and what few norms exist are poorly developed. There are few commonly known and accepted standards for when and how to connect, with whom, and in what ways. This leads to uncertainty, which can be a significant barrier to action.

This is further complicated by the wide variety of platforms that can be used. In the past you’d make a telephone call, there was a phone directory to find people’s phone number, and there were strongly established norms about when and how to connect by phone. Now, however, there are scores of different platforms and technologies. For example, you can make video calls on Skype, Zoom, Facebook, Hangouts, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Google Duo, WeChat, Wire, and many more. Different friends may use different platforms and it can be difficult to keep track of them. This becomes significantly more complicated when you want to do group calls with friends who are used to using different platforms.

Fear of rejection

Fear of rejection is often mentioned as a reason why people don’t connect with more people more often. This perhaps started with the advent of caller ID and the increased valued placed on privacy in recent decades. Many people take a declined call or an unanswered message as a rejection. They know the other person saw the call and who was calling them. We need to move past these concerns – they may be otherwise occupied or just not feel like talking at that time. Try again later.

It’s a good idea to avoid making connecting onerous. Avoid considering it a commitment or obligation – ideally it would be off the cuff, spur of the moment, spontaneous connection. To facilitate this, you can let other people know of any busy times/days, and always be open about whether you want to talk at that time or if it is inconvenient. This didn’t use to be such a problem. People used to just pick up the phone to talk.

You may not think others want to connect with you, but you’ll probably find you’re wrong. You may think they’re too busy, but they’re not going out with their friends either, so they’re probably not. If we understand the importance of social interaction and social capital, then we can prioritise social interaction.

Remember, communication technologies lack social presence relative to in-person interaction, so make sure you compensate. Be open and honest, be positive, be caring and be an active listener, communicate care and regard for the other person because these messages may not be transmitted by the technology.

When talking about individual social capital it often seems like we are being selfish by focusing on the benefits we can gain from others. However, we must remember the focus should be on what we can do for others, while realising that the benefits of social capital also flow back to us as well. Social capital resides in our social relationships so exists ‘between’ people, benefiting both parties.

Generally speaking, selfish acts undermine social capital and prosocial acts build or enhance social capital.

Social capital relates to goodwill, benevolence, and cooperation, and to personal characteristics of duty, respect, loyalty, solidarity, service, compromise, restraint, patience, tolerance, understanding, self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, perseverance, honesty, trust, faith, and numerous others.

Going beyond relationship maintenance

Communication technologies are great for maintaining and reinforcing relationships, but we can go further and actually build new relationships.

Using these technologies to only connect with close friends and family can stagnate any improvements in your social capital. Try including multiple people in online communication, including introducing new people to existing networks. This may be uncomfortable, but the more ‘presence’ in the technology being used the less awkward this will be and the more effective.

The challenges of living through a global pandemic could be turned into an opportunity to build and improve your social capital. Now is an ideal time to embrace new technologies to connect with old and new friends and make new connections. It may take some adjustment and it may feel like it’s outside your comfort zone but when you understand the importance of social capital you may find the necessary motivation. Remember, it benefits more than just you, or just others, it benefits the whole community.

Going beyond social interaction

Interaction is what creates and maintains social capital, interaction is how social capital is realised, it is where the ‘rubber meets the road’. But social capital is not just about social interaction. It is the mental constructs that influence how we interact and exchange with others and the nature of our actions that affect others. So, at this time, when physical social interaction is ill-advised, we can still nurture the true nature of social capital – by how we think and feel.

You may look down the empty street and not see ‘community’, but people are there, behind closed doors, your community is still there. You may not see other people struggling with the same issues you are. You may not see their struggles with isolation, their fear of rejection, and their feelings of uncertainty. We need to look past what we cannot see. We need to choose to feel the strength of our community. Choose to feel pride in community and confidence in others goodwill.

In many communities people clearly understand the importance of physical symbols and gestures that demonstrate community solidarity and community cohesion. Examples from around the world include colour coded paper in windows, singing from balconies in Italy, daily applause for health care workers in New York, and messages written on fences and footpaths and teddy bears in windows in New Zealand.

We need to refocus our attention on the importance of being social

We need to refocus our attention on the importance of being social. It encourages people to be giving, supportive, and cooperative while discouraging selfish and exploitive behaviours. It inspires trust, mutual respect, goodwill, and solidarity that benefits us, and everyone we interact with. It builds community, improves the function of social groups and organisations, and provides invaluable social support.

We need people to engage and organise. We need champions and facilitators in our communities, both our neighbourhoods and our online communities of interest. We need people to develop creative solutions and to initiate action to connect us in ways we have never before considered. We need to show our humanity and embrace this opportunity to build social capital for ourselves and our communities.

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