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Craving Novelty, but not like the virus

By Michael Perman

Around 6:57 PM every evening since early April, hundreds of people begin to emerge from their perches hanging on the steel and glass towers where I live, on the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, to express their gratitude and empathy in novel ways.

They mimic the ritual of making physical distance emotionally shorter. It’s a ritual happening all over the world. People bang pots and pans, blow conch shells, ring bells, wave hands, and just plain applaud front-line workers for sure, but also to express novel forms of connection. Emotional energy craved, bursting at the seams as a distraction to uncertainty and boredom.

I love the noise amidst the uncommon silence. My wife and I play African drums and sometimes blow bubbles. For the moment, whatever anxiety exists dissipates into joy, human connection, compassion, creativity and relief, which last only five minutes until I yell, “HAVE A NICE EVENING!” And then we all cruise back into our cocoons, with just a bit more of a glow.

As novel as this virus is, our society is matching it by creating novel forms of empathy to compensate for the physical distance, for the absence of hugging or holding hands or even worshiping together in times of need. Our eye contact is more expressive. Waving matters more. Even though we avoid humans, we seek new forms of connection.

We are in the midst of experiencing Novel Forms of Empathy, A Peak of Urgency and Novel Learning—emerging waves that will likely change beliefs and behaviors as we shift into new forms of normal.

Novel Forms of Empathy

Our craving to connect physically is sprouting new ways for humans to share love and faith. We saw novel virtual gatherings of worship during Passover and Easter, and we continue to share screens of collective faith during our days of rest and renewal. We cling to the screen as if to touch and be touched. We find new ways to convey that we care—through films, through humor, through asking for family recipes.

Our homes and neighborhoods are bubbles. We notice and relate to adjacent bubbles in ways that foster relationships. Some are anxious to pierce the bubble, and show guns at rallies in the effort to pop for freedom despite the risk. But according to a Pew Research report, more than a third of all Americans have had a virtual party of social gathering, meaning a lot of us are learning to connect without having to burst the bubbles that are keeping us apart.

We have a heightened craving for empathy, which requires a paradigm shift in order to receive and give in current circumstances. So now we attempt to experience that in new ways. We are generally being asked to avoid humans, and turn our heads. To not engage in any way. to “flatten the curve”—a new meme in our vocabulary.

But, we also identify humans from afar as bandits. Masks are inherently a negative symbol, one of deception, but we parse together protection however we can, and we are perplexed at the mutual inconvenience of it all. We wonder who resides behind the mask, what they are feeling, and how we wish we could reach out and comfort them, but instead we’ve learned to share gestures of kindness—sometimes merely from eye contact.

We are likely to see more devoted attention to empathy in business practices as well. While the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes has been a primary element in the human-centered design movement that emerged in the early 1990s, brands and businesses need to step up their understanding of the new human that’s emerging from COVID in order to stay relevant.