Friends, colleagues, countrymen: After many long months of distancing, masks, quarantine, curfews and telecommuting, it's time to get back together. Yet re-socializing isn't as simple as it seems.
Finally, we can clink glasses again! On April 23, Andrew Pero, who works for an English tour operator, met his colleagues at a pub in London's Mayfair district. Once a mundane activity, gathering together around a pint was a grand occasion for these citizens of a country famous for its drinking establishments. "One year without any contact with them other than via a computer... Of course, it's not as spontaneous as before because you have to reserve a table but seeing each other was essential, especially for those who live alone, which is common in a city like London," said Pero. "We work like a big family and we really missed this very British tradition of going to the pub together."
Elsewhere in Mayfair, multi-starred French chef Hélène Darroze met her London teams for the first time in months. "We were not able to celebrate our third Michelin star with the employees of my restaurant in London. Team bonds are so important to our business! We reopened on May 18 at "Connaught" and we are already fully booked for the next few weeks. It's very encouraging for the restaurant business; We all need to get together around the table," says Darroze.
In Tel Aviv, Jonathan Cos has been returning to his chess club since the beginning of April. He had not played against an opponent for months. "I feel alive again. It's important to cultivate one's hobbies, and even to consider practicing new ones. My computer chess board has never replaced the warmth of my neighborhood association. Chess.com distracted me for a while but I lived my passion of chess without affect, without risk, without variety... I also decided to subscribe to other group activities: hikes, cultural visits, painting workshops. I feel a deep need to change the routine of my previous life."
We have become distant from friends.
The United Kingdom and Israel have both seen social activities blossom since April, while France is just beginning to open its terraces, cinemas, museums and theaters. "It is difficult to comprehend the extent of the disconnection to others. However, we can see that with this pandemic we have lost what are called "weak ties': Our acquaintances outside of family and our closest inner circles. We have become distant from friends. There are no more chance encounters at dinners, parties or concerts, and yet this is what makes life worth living," says Anne Vincent-Buffault, a historian and author of Histoire sensible du toucher ("The Sensitive History of Touching").
How do we resume a social life rich in diverse, chance encounters? "Without touch, without embraces, the traditional channels of communication are blurred. We are all a bit awkward when it comes to physical reunions. What do we do? What physical distance do we respect? We will have to be very tactful in our human relations; We are all a bit on edge. We'll get there by rediscovering a sense of moderation, of nuance with others. After months of health crisis, a certain indifference to others may have set in, due in particular to physical distance. We must regain empathy," says Vincent-Buffault.
According to a survey conducted by Santé Publique France over the past year, by mid-March 2021 one in five French citizens were suffering from depression or anxiety, while 65% said they were experiencing sleep problems. According to the study, the feeling of loneliness is associated with these indicators of degraded mental health.
Zoom and other communication tools have certainly made it possible to keep in touch with one's loved ones and have been at the heart of many companies' operations. But Mark Hunyadi — professor, author and ethics committee member of the telecoms company Orange — warns: "The all-digital world and the diktat of applications can lead us to a life of robots. We are in what I call "cockpit individualism", like a pilot who feeds on information only coming from screens. Quarantine has accelerated this process by altering relationships of trust. It is time to get out of our bubble, to get a grip on ourselves, to rediscover the trust that links us to the world. Trust is the first of the social bonds; It is a risk, not a calculation or an algorithm."
Starting to fill back up? — Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire/ZUMA
Sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, author of C'est fatigant la liberté... Une leçon de la crise ("Liberty is exhausting... a lesson from the crisis'), highlights two phenomena: "When the crisis becomes serious, there is a willingness to jump up, to go beyond oneself to reach out to others. However, I observe contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the temptation of what I call — with no judgment — a "soft society": To settle in the countryside, to break the frenetic rhythm of city life, to create a protective cocoon, to meditate, etc. On the other hand, there is an overflowing energy, such as young people who want to build something in this society... In this group, anger can appear, as young people have paid the high price of the health crisis."
Abigail Taugwalder, creator of the line Asagiri Beauty and a yoga teacher based in Paris, hasn't ceased doling out advice on reconnecting with others. With clients all over the world and a family scattered across Switzerland, England and Japan, she was, in many ways, prepared for the pandemic.
"I lived in Japan, where wearing a mask in case of flu or a simple cold has long been part of everyday life. I also learned to integrate into Japanese society by escaping the comfortable bubble of expatriates."
She adds, "My yoga classes didn't replace the studio atmosphere, but they gave me a purpose for getting up early and rituals that felt good mentally. These classes allowed us to exchange a lot and now that the idea is to meet physically, I will organize retreats to continue our discussions."
Culture and group leisure activities, which have been absent from our agendas for months, are prime excuses for reconnecting with others. Is the much-publicized opening of a hotel-cinema in Paris, where everyone can see a film in the cocoon of their room rather than in a theater, a sign that cultural practices are turning inward? Nathanaël Karmitz, chairman of the board of MK2 cinemas and creator of the Paradiso doesn't think so.
"Our hotel was not designed to respond to the current health crisis. The project has been in the works for more than seven years with my brother Elisha. At the Hotel Paradiso, we find the experience complementary to that of dark rooms. Charlie Chaplin used to say that we meet at the cinema to laugh and to cry. It is this sharing of emotions that contributes to the experience of cinema, to its magic. Paris is the French capital of cinema, and we passionately anticipate its return." Audiences will be spilt for choice when it comes to rediscovering the atmosphere of movie theatres, with more than 500 films waiting to be programmed in France.
For the actors and dancers in live performances, the relationship with the public has been almost nonexistent for months. Nevertheless, Parelle Gervasoni, the director of the Compagnie Piste, kept on working and presented her latest creation, "Ici nos yeux sont inutiles," ("Here our eyes are useless') on April 19 at the La Reine Blanche theater in front of industry professionals.
"We are all thirsty for life, for an audience, even if we play in front of masked people, which can be a little destabilizing. The emotion shared with the public is different every night. On both sides of the curtain, it is useful to remember that these exchanges are more than "essential"," she says.
Sophie Arbib is the founder of Exclusif Voyages, which focuses on discovering new destinations through encounters and experiences. Arbib is also optimistic: "You have to learn to tame your fears, to live with them. Our clients have been very reactive. As soon as the vaccination campaigns were announced, they planned their next vacation to far away destinations such as southern Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Polynesia. I dream of returning to Japan. Leaving again when we can is part of the essentials: questioning ourselves, looking for the mystery, the unknown, new emotions."
Larnaca airport, in Cyprus, on May 17, 2021. — Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/ZUMA
What about the working world? What will a return to office life look like? "Let's remember: Before the crisis, the beginning of a different work structure was taking shape. This new generation fresh out of school was showing its desire to balance private and professional life. With COVID-19, everything accelerated and for the questions of economic and health survival, decisions were made very quickly. Telecommuting was made mandatory... We had to understand, decipher and instill the new codes of professional cohabitation via the screen. A computer that shuts down on an angry or upset face will leave you with a bad feeling for the day, whereas an unpleasant exchange in person can be resolved in the afternoon over a good coffee or a laugh. Trust, listening and availability are the three keywords that will make the difference between before and after COVID," says Stéphanie Picon, director of GroupExpression, a communication and marketing agency specialized in tourism and leisure.
The organization of her company is ready to adapt: "We have set up a rhythm that we'll test together and update if necessary. Three days minimum in person for a balanced social life within the company and two days at home for a greater concentration on our cases, in the form of a team rotation. Knowing that one day a week we would all be together, ready to dedicate our time and attention to our colleagues. Perhaps we can spend time with each other without a computer or laptop — or, even better, over a good lunch prepared together. In the meantime, we have grown and learned... that's what we will have to remember from this crisis."
"Our system is beginning to show signs of cracking and this crisis favors what I call crumbling."
Fanny Rayon, a wellness coach in Paris, had the idea of offering "posture" workshops via Zoom to companies. "I felt that giving ergonomic advice and exercises to be as comfortable as possible while teleworking to groups of colleagues brought some teams together. Laughing together, sometimes being a little silly, has done a lot of good for teams whose exchanges remain limited to long meetings via Zoom or Microsoft Teams."
Sociologists and researchers have noted the disintegrating links within family and professional groups. Historian Jean-François Sirinelli studied society as a whole in his book Ce monde que nous avons perdu, Une histoire du vivre-ensemble ("This world that we have lost: A history of living together"). Despite his rather pessimistic view of our era, he admits that "in the face of unprecedented historical upheaval, living together has held together; these trials have welded us together."
Yet he doesn't hide his concerns: "Public interest is no longer at the heart of political programs. Our system is beginning to show signs of cracking and this crisis favors what I call crumbling."
The historian — a great specialist on France's Fifth Republic, the country's current governing system — recalls "the Republic's values are based on altruism, compassion and concern for the other." These are a solid set of morals to guide us through our reopening world where, little by little, we will be able to rediscover how to delight in the presence of others.