The Changing Social Cues

Humans are inherently social creatures. Even the introverts among us still interact with networks of others, live in towns created by cooperation, and rely on contact to keep us grounded. This inherently social nature means that we react instinctively to hundreds of thousands of social cues which tell us how to feel and behave. We do this on a subconscious level, which is why we can walk into a room and instantly recognize when two people have abruptly changed the subject because we entered. We can tell within moments whether a gathering is a funeral or a birthday party. This is why I found it interesting that the deli counter of the grocery store was no longer shuttered. Two months ago, everywhere I looked in the grocery store I was reminded by moved furniture, shuttered deli, empty shelves that the world had changed. It helped me to remember to be cautious about keeping distance, to not plan big family parties, to limit my outings. Now I go to the store and it feels more relaxed than it was. The re-opening invites me to relax too. I’m watching networks of friends decide to meet in person, decide to go to church, decide to go out to dinner. And I’m watching the graphs which say that all this increased interaction are increasing the Covid-19 infection rates across the state. My state stopped short of moving to green, but the governor has said he has no intention of shutting down the economy again. I think it will take weeks, until the hospitalization numbers increase dramatically, before he will walk back that statement. They’re saying “wear masks” with the implication that everything else can stay the same if only people will wear masks. Except all of the social cues are saying “there is no need to worry.” So people leave their masks at home.

At the same time I’m worried that the social cues aren’t helping people be appropriately wary about pandemic, I’m noticing the shift in social cues around racial issues. I’m seeing statements made by middle-of-the-road or conservative people which were radical ideas only 2-4 years ago. The social norm has shifted. I’m glad of that. I think that the practice empathizing with the Me Too movement helped. I think the collective thinking required by the pandemic helped. I think the decades-long push for more representation has helped. Different conversations are possible today than were possible just two months ago. The conversations continue to be hard, and so they need to continue for months and years. We can shift the social norms into a place which is more fair.

Social norms and reading the room is also why I’m glad to see the news that the EU isn’t likely to open their borders to Americans any time soon. When my country’s leadership is so far out of step with all the other governments in the world, it takes steps like this to help wake up US citizens so we can vote in better leadership. It will not be comfortable to live in a country that is being censured by other countries, but maybe that is what it takes to change the social cues and create a course shift.

My brain is tired from constantly evaluating all of these shifting norms, from deciding which shifts I want to roll with and which I should stand against. Just being alive in the world requires more thought than it used to. And all that is without even beginning to evaluate the ways that social media allows the creation of illusory norms. If we’re basing our reading of social norms on what the algorithms of social media are choosing to feed us, then our perceptions of our communities become skewed. We feel beleaguered and attacked when few people actually wish each other ill. I don’t have any answers for any of this, I’m just noticing patterns and feeling tired.