Virtual Contact in My First 9 Days of Physical Distancing

Tue, Mar 24, 2020

Two weekends ago, I began practicing physical distancing in earnest. In the past 9 days, I’ve had minimal face-to-face contact with anyone besides the people who share my apartment. But I’m calling this physical distancing instead of social distancing intentionally, because I’ve been connecting with people in real time on the phone, Facebook video, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts.1

I’ve spent much of my free time walking in the green spaces near where I live, waving from a safe distance to the dogs and people I (nearly) cross paths with, and talking on the phone. I’m not generally very good at keeping in touch with people, but people have reached out, and I’ve been catching up with family and friends I hadn’t talked with in months or even years.

I looked back through my phone’s call log (which includes the various types of video calls) to see how much time I spent talking and with whom, and here are some visualizations of many of those calls:

Time Talking, Time Since Talking

I’ve been in touch with people I hadn’t talked to in a long time, and others I talk to often. Here’s a graph of how many minutes I spent talking to each person in the last 9 days vs. how many days it had been since our last real-time interaction (either in person, by phone, or by video call). Note that the x-axis is a log scale. I counted group calls as talking to each person for the full amount of time of the call.2

The two outliers in total minutes talking are, as you might have guessed, my parents.

This graph results in an interesting curve. I spent the most time talking to people I had also talked to the most recently. They’re the people I would have been talking to frequently anyway, and, if anything, we’re just talking more than we would have, since we have more free time.

On the other end of the x-axis is an interesting slight rise in Total Minutes Talking as Days Since Last Contact increases. These are the people I likely talked to because of the pandemic and resulting physical distancing. Perhaps, the longer it had been since we talked, the more we had to catch up on.

The Connections, Geographically

I spoke with people currently located in 8 US states, Washington DC, Chile, and France. Here’s a visualization of the total minutes talking by US state. Note that for some states I talked to multiple people who were located there.

And here’s the same map zoomed in on the northeast:

The Connections & How I Know Them

I talked to friends I know from college, UWC, growing up in Maine, and the last 8 months living in Boston. Here’s a graph of how long I spent talking to each person and how old I was when we first met:


Physical distancing is isolating and no amount of video calling will change that, but hearing people’s voices and seeing their faces, even through a phone, is far better than nothing. The past nine days have been lonely and disconcerting, but it’s also been refreshing and meaningful to reconnect with people, especially as we’re all sharing an experience of upheaval and uncertainty.

I wonder if this experience will make people more intentional about their relationships, even after we can go back to care-free handshakes and tedious commutes. In the meantime, stay home, and call a friend.

P.S. As usual, here’s a link to download my code.
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  1. I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true; I have yet to attempt Zoom.↩︎

  2. Note that work-related calls are not included.↩︎