A new age of connectedness?

Maddi Pownall on how the coronavirus pandemic might shape psychologists’ interactions with each other.

I’m sitting on my balcony with my laptop perched precariously on my lap, shielded from the sun. It’s Wednesday at 11am, which means it’s time for the weekly check-in with my PhD office mates. Each face pops up on the screen, and we wave manically at the excitement of seeing each other again. We squeal and laugh and adjust our webcams. ‘Can you hear me?!’ I bellow, as my laptop screen freezes. The chatting becomes increasingly fragmented. My connection flitters and frazzles. One of us has to dash off to sort out the kids. One of us gets cut off due to intermittent wifi. My laptop warns me that it is on 2 per cent battery and will shut off soon. The call stumbles clumsily to an abrupt end. I now find myself sitting alone, my reflection on the dark screen blinking back at me. It’s difficult not to cry.

It has been exactly three weeks since we were last together in our basement office in the psychology building. I miss our weird, poky, heavily decorated and overly air-conditioned office more than I thought I would. The pandemic, and all the associated uncertainties and uncomfortableness, has prompted self-reflection (read: a quarter life crisis). Given the growing sense of global change in its many forms, I am left wondering how this will shape psychologists’ interactions and communications with each other, when we eventually return to a new ‘normality’. 

As I see it, there could be genuine scope for this global crisis to revolutionise what we value and appreciate. In the aftermath of that disastrous attempt to communicate with my PhD colleagues, I dusted myself off, hauled my laptop inside, and settled in to write up one of my studies. My PhD, as Emma Smith has perfectly articulated, had lost all meaning overnight. The whole thing felt futile and unimportant. However, I also noticed a distinct sense of irony. 

I am, by my own identification, a social psychologist. Through my PhD I hope to understand the ways in which different groups of people are stereotyped against and how they navigate this. And yet, there is something telling me that my work has no meaningful place in the context of the pandemic, unless it can address global concerns directly. There is some level of tension between my ‘work stuff’ and ‘life stuff’. By creating this divide, I have (inadvertently) taken off my ‘psychologist’ hat and opted to be a normal human again. It feels a lot more comfortable. 

Memes on Twitter joke about how the (unspoken) preoccupation of any Zoom videocall is to covertly inspect the homes of your colleagues. Some call this prying or snooping. I call it feeding the part of our brain that makes us naturally curious about other people and their lives. This is, after all, the very thing that makes us psychologists. I, like many who now communicate exclusively through a webcam, often find myself scanning the background of my colleagues’ home office setup. I can spot others doing it to me. We’re all searching for things that connect us, for insights into each other’s lives that align our experiences and unite us.  

Last week, a videocall with a colleague was interrupted with a sudden gasp as I reached for my coffee. ‘I have that mug!’ my colleague exclaimed. We happily abandoned the research meeting for a while and shared a moment of commonality, relishing the chance to find something that made us feel collectively human again.

In psychology, particularly in academic psychology, we have grown so used to talking about people in a detached, professional, expert manner, that we can forget how to switch this off. I wonder whether, in response to the pandemic, the future of our discipline will be forced to accommodate more of the messy, personal-professional overlap – whether we will lay bare the messiness of our lives for others to witness, just as we do on Zoom calls. The pandemic has already prompted us to consider the boundary between the professional and the personal and will only continue to blur these distinctions. 

Coronavirus will change us irreversibly. It will change the way we shop, the way we think about our health, how we appreciate our health systems, and how we work. I hope that it also allows us the capacity to start changing how we think about our own position within our discipline. I hope it will prompt us to re-evaluate how much of ourselves we ‘let in’ to the process of ‘doing’ psychology. It may well offer an entirely new age of connectedness, and psychologists have an important role to play as the personal, political, and professional become increasingly blurred. 

An update… 

It’s now been over a month since I first sat down to write this piece. Or 44 days, to be precise (not that I’m making an obsessive mental note of each passing day). Some things have changed, much has stayed the same. Today was a milestone in my lockdown journey, because it was the first time that I’ve seen one of my PhD pals in the flesh for over 10 weeks. We sat in our local park, giggling and waving at each other, at a friendly, if not slightly constrained, two metre distance. We chatted for a while, before leaving awkwardly, and I headed back to my home office to crack on with some work. 

In a normal, pre-Covid world, my academic working is punctuated by all-too-frequent coffee dates, walks around campus, and chatter in the office. I regularly interrupt my writing by picking up my coffee mug and spinning around in my wheelie chair to have a natter with whoever has just walked into the office. I previously thought of these as distractions or procrastination. It hasn’t been until now, in the cold light of pandemic-day, that I realise how completely essential those interruptions are.

For me, the ability to survive academia is reliant on togetherness with other people. It’s the hum of excitement when meeting with a potential collaborator, the tipsy introductions at a conference wine reception, the room full of laughter from frustrated PhD students, the one-to-ones with struggling students. When you strip back all of this, as the pandemic has done so mercilessly, the bare bones of academia are exposed. It’s not as pretty a place to be. 

I spoke above about how there could be scope for this pandemic to bring us closer together, by tangling up the distinction between the personal and professional. I still think that – now more than ever. Without people, there is no psychology. And, especially in academic psychology, without a sense of authentic, genuine, we’re-all-in-this-together connectedness, we’re left with a system that can be rather unfriendly.

- Maddi Pownall is a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds

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