We All Miss Our Friends—But What About Strangers?

During shelter in place, people are missing the sense of belonging they get from participating in a larger community beyond their close friend groups. (Chinwe Okona)

Before shelter in place, Chin Lu trained weekly at In the Groove Studios in Oakland with her dance team. And though they’d rarely see each other outside of practice, she spent more time with these 30 women than with her closest friends. For several hours each week, they’d move, sweat, laugh and cheer each other on as they practiced challenging routines to songs by Roddy Ricch, T-Pain and Beyoncé.

“We don’t really chat that much while we’re dancing, so we’re enjoying and feeding off each others’ physical presence,” says the San Francisco marketing professional, adding that Zoom rehearsals with pixelated images and lagging audio haven’t felt the same. “When there’s no audience and you know there’s no one right there watching you and rooting [for you], you’re not trying to impress them or entertain them.”

Now that Californians have been sheltering in their homes for over two months to slow the spread of COVID-19, many have found themselves adrift without the communities that reinforce their sense of belonging to something greater. While family and close friends are reachable by phone or video chat, many people find their shrinking social worlds feel limiting, creatively uninspiring and destabilizing to their sense of identity.

The Groove Generation dance team at In the Groove Studios. (In the Groove Studios)

Communities based on mutual interests, shared cultural identities or spiritual practices are sources of social support, meaning and replenishment. “These empowering community settings can contribute to individual psychological development, community development and positive social change,” writes Brian D. Christens, associate professor in Vanderbilt University’s Department of Organizational and Human Development, in a 2012 paper in the Community Development Journal. While technology can be a stopgap measure while we lack of in-person access to these communities, for many, the self-conscious, performative nature of Zoom calls doesn’t replace the flow of spontaneous social interactions.

Marcella Faustini and Charlie Leese, co-founders of San Francisco art gallery Cloaca Projects, miss off-the-cuff conversations the most. At Cloaca, they hosted art openings where artists of different disciplines—metalworkers, wood workers, electronic musicians, video artists, art book makers—hung out and mingled. Those conversations sometimes led to fruitful ideas and unusual collaborations.

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“I think a great deal of opportunity and ideas are lost,” says Faustini. “Honestly, people are not very good at reaching out digitally. Very few people have reached out to me this whole time in the pandemic. When you’re out and about and you see people and have conversations, sometimes things evolve from that. That’s something the digital can’t really duplicate.”

Randy Reiss, an avid concertgoer in San Francisco, feels that way about the community of people he’d regularly see at shows at Great American Music Hall, the Great Northern and Public Works. “It’s a missing piece you don’t know you’re missing till it’s gone,” he says, describing the feeling as “unmooring.” While Reiss has had no trouble keeping up with his inner circle, he says, “Not every relationship needs to be such a close thing. It’s fine and probably healthy and normal to have these kinds of relationships where you’re part of a tribe. You see them at a hip-hop show and nod your head.”

Indeed, the positive interactions we experience in our broader communities can provide a sense of stability and give us greater resilience in navigating challenges. “When you’re part of a community, you have an idea of ‘normal’ and what is normal to you—your everyday experience and what your routines are,” says David Bond, a licensed clinical social worker and the behavioral health director of Blue Shield of California. “That disruption [during the pandemic] can be complicated for people. It depends on what your baseline resilience is.”

Bond explains that without their communities, kids and teenagers may feel stifled by parents’ household rules; older people may experience alienation because of a learning curve with technology; and people who rely on support groups, group therapy or Alcoholics Anonymous to help them manage mental illnesses and addiction are among those who may have the most trouble. And people who don’t feel safe at home, such as LGBTQ+ youth who aren’t accepted by their families, are particularly vulnerable as well.

Even those with more resources and generally positive mental health are finding themselves feeling uprooted and struggling with loneliness without the support of larger social structures.

“It takes strengths to ask for help and it takes strength to identify that you’re missing something and need to reach out and find it,” says Bond. “There’s a whole other set of [challenges in] being the one who takes it upon yourself to be there for others.”

Randy Reiss (center) at Outside Lands. (Randy Reiss)

Getting creative with how she connects with community now has been a huge boost for Chinwe Okona, an artist and graduate student at the University of Southern California. She misses the social cross-pollenating without access to her favorite coffee shop, Highly Likely in Los Angeles.

This was where she connected with screenwriters, musicians and visual artists through chance encounters. Okona says that since shelter in place started, she’s been missing the sense of validation she got from spontaneous interactions that reinforced her place in the creative community, which boosted her self-esteem as she charted the unknown territory of a career transition.

“There’s this kind of magic of like, you don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me, but there’s something that happened in this moment or this exchange where you’re like, ‘I wanna talk to you, what are you working on? Cool sticker on your laptop,’” she says.

Chinwe Okona (top right) and her art critique group on Zoom. (Chinwe Okona)

To combat feelings of loneliness, Okona and her friends have revved up their group chats. She’s in one with a bunch of actor friends who fire off jokes late at night; another group meets on Zoom on Friday nights to give each other art critiques. And a meme group gives her the opportunity to be silly. By curating these group dynamics, she’s been able to find some semblance of the uplifting, lighthearted interactions she misses from her regular haunts.

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One of the most important things Okona has learned during shelter in place is that everyone is lonely—reaching out may feel risky, but it’s usually welcome. “Don’t feel like you’re bothering people,” Okona says. “People want to hear about you, people want to hear about your work. People will show up for you if you let them.”