When Governor Inslee ordered Washington to “Stay Home, Stay Safe,” Seattle—a city where we avert our eyes when we pass a stranger on the sidewalk—took to it like a charm. Soon we were zigzagging across streets to avoid passersby and chastising frisbee players on social media, our reclusive tendencies at their peak. Walks with friends, if we dared, became physical demonstrations of like-poled magnets; grocery excursions looked like Tetris competitions for aisle space. In a city already known for its icy introversion, would the symptoms of our newfound enforced distancing ever go away?
Jonathan Kanter thinks so. The director of the University of Washington’s Center for the Science of Social Connection believes most of us will easily adjust as restrictions are lifted, our initial squeamishness at hugging friends and standing near strangers dissipating as quickly as our social lives were constricted by boarded up bar windows and patrolled city parks.
“At the beginning of this crisis, many of us”—he’s talking social scientists, here—“were predicting a wave of loneliness to wash over our society,” Kanter says. That concerned him: Loneliness has lasting physical effects, including a greater impact on mortality than smoking 15 cigarettes per day, according to a study by psychologists at Brigham Young University. But Kanter says “it didn’t quite materialize that way.” Loneliness makes sense under the terms of the Seattle Freeze: It’s a phenomenon where “you feel outside the group but the group itself is intact.” Coronavirus created a different sort of environment. Everyone was suddenly cut off from a group that no longer existed. We were alone together.
And in a classic case of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone, we quickly took to aspects of public life we’d long considered a drag—going to school, interacting with coworkers, wooing strangers over the internet. Students at the University of Washington recreated the Seattle campus on Minecraft, where hundreds of students could meet, virtually, on a pixelated Red Square. Countless workplaces hosted virtual happy hours—The Seattle Times staff was on a Zoom call when they learned they had won a Pulitzer.
Ben Mussi, founder of the Seattle Dating App, saw in-app chatting increase by 40 percent over the month of March, turning the small-talk slog that daters used to barely tolerate into an almost old-fashioned opportunity to just talk. One app user, Mussi said, “shared” a meal over video chat by sending their date dinner through Uber Eats.
If Seattle slipped easily into quarantine, it emerged with a bang: At the end of May, before any gathering restrictions were lifted, thousands of Seattleites donned masks and flooded into the streets to protest the death of George Floyd and other police brutality. The protests had a fervor not seen in years, perhaps because being apart reminded us of the sheer power of coming together.