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Leaving the house to talk in private. How COVID19 restrictions affected how and where we find someone to talk to.

21. December 2020

Introduction

As COVID19 spreads again after some relief in the summer, many governments have once more turned to attempts to empty out urban meeting places and impose contact restrictions. In Berlin, at the moment of our writing, this winter can be lived in public or private “[…] space only […] alone, with members of one’s own household and members of a maximum of one other household. In addition, there is a limit of five persons present at the same time.”[1] We should stay at home whenever possible and meet as few persons as we can. At present, even stricter measures are being discussed in the hope to control the COVID19 numbers. So, Berlin is basically back to where it was in spring.

Early accounts of the benefits of ‘home office’ and the use of digital means to ‘stay in touch’ and continue ‘business as usual’ – work, learn, teach, marry, perform opera or protest via video-chat – sounded almost celebrative, as if we had finally become “placeless societies” (Knoke 1996) and fulfilled the promise of escaping the limits and boundedness of the body (see Bell 2020: 21). Those less optimistic about the value of a virtual existence may, in the initial weeks of the lockdown, have thought that they’d be okay not seeing anyone for a few weeks. Now that we have more experience and face the prospect that things may not change for this whole long winter, a question which we asked in earlier work (Blokland et al. 2020), of how people face everyday life challenges, acquires new relevance.  

Solving problems and dealing with all sorts of everyday issues often cannot be put on hold for more than the length of a summer vacation. Whereas we can adjust how we spend time creatively (run through the park and not on the treadmill in the gym) or continue activities in a half-baked manner (bake a cake and eat it all instead of baking it and taking it to a party), we cannot stop having worries, nor adjust our troubles themselves – worries come regardless, and we may even have more of them. And our need for support remains.

So how did people adjust to these COVID19 limitations in how and where they organised support? Did they do so face-to-face or digitally? Did they stay at home or at least more local so that neighbourhoods gained in importance as sites of human exchange? Did digital exchanges increase in importance, not only for work or education, but also for talking to others about the most pressing challenges?

A note to prompt people to stay-at-home
Source: “Stay Home Save Lives” by ninachildish is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Berlin allows high connectivity thanks to its public transport infrastructure (Blokland & Vief 2021). In a survey that we conducted in 2019, people in four divergent Berlin neighbourhoods hence showed various degrees of leaving their homes to talk to someone. But they did so often and across various sites in the city. We asked interviewees to think of the most pressing challenges they had in their life over the past 6 months. We documented where, how and about what type of challenges they had communicated. Before COVID19, most of such conversations took place outside of someone’s home and face-to-face. Few Berliners found the most important support at home. So, we suspected in spring 2020 that “[…] digital communication cannot replace us meeting each other, and […] habituation to it may produce unequal effects on the future of how we find support” (Blokland et al. 2020). Then we conducted another round of our survey. We can now see what happened when people had to find other ways of organising their social support in the first lockdown.[2] We sampled in the same neighbourhoods as in 2019 – combining a revisit of our original sample with additional (representative) sampling and a somewhat adjusted survey design.[3] For this part of our research project, we can thus properly compare what people did ‘before’ and ‘after’ the restrictions on our lives.

How: fewer people to talk to

Our survey confirms what we feared: people talked less to others about their most pressing challenges under COVID19 restrictions. In 2019, 7% named challenges but had no one to talk to (n=571). After the contact restrictions, this increased to more than 16% (n=735). Where Berliners had an average of 2.48 people with whom they shared concerns, this dropped in 2020 to 2.29.

Not talking to anyone must not imply that there was no one there: as Small (2017) showed, we may avoid talking to people very close to us out of shame, guilt, or because we do not want them to worry. Small showed that we may talk to people less close (weak ties) as we owe them less or do not have to fear social sanctions. Not talking to anyone at home may result from a long-shared past of gender-based perceptions of what can and cannot be shared with a partner. Moreover, when researchers ask who people actually talked to about a specific challenge, rather than asking them who they would talk to if they one day had an imaginary problem, they find that such incidents may appear rather unplanned and unintended. You may pick up your kid from kindergarten and – while waiting for her to finally put on her shoes – chat casually with another parent and end up confiding the stress of a divorce (lost in conversation until the child says, ‘I thought you wanted to go!’). The rise in people having no one to talk to may partly find its explanation in the absence of such opportunities.

How: only a little more at home

Berliners who did find someone face-to-face to talk to did stay at home a little more. In 2019, around 49% of the face-to-face interactions in which interview partners exchanged support took place at home and 51% outside. This changed during COVID19: 54% of the exchanges happened at home, and around 46% did not. So, generally, less support happened outside the home, much like the call to stay at home would have made us expect, but we do not see a radical shift to staying at home here: almost half of the face-to-face communication continued to be at another place! So, where did they go, given that restaurants, bars, cafés, and many offices were closed?

In our survey, we distinguished “outside of home” according to three categories: “in the neighbourhood”, “outside the neighbourhood but in Berlin” and “outside of Berlin” – the neighbourhood gained somewhat in relevance (27% in 2019 to 32% in 2020 of all the realms outside of home); elsewhere in the city dropped only by 1% (from 59% to 58%), and only 10% in 2020 compared to 14% in 2019 met other people outside of Berlin. The neighbourhood thus became a little more important as a site to talk with others face-to-face, and seeing people outside of Berlin a little less.

Note that we did not tell people what their neighbourhood was, nor objectively measure it. In contrast to city-boundaries, such boundaries are not clear-cut. This then reflects people’s sense of whether they conversed in the neighbourhood or not. Given the density of Berlin, the experience of neighbourhood as a small, often specifically defined area in people’s minds, and the public transport which remained unaffected by restrictions, this confirms that, for almost 60% of people’s face-to-face networks, the city, not the neighbourhood as such, is the spatial level of organising support.[4] If you and I go for a walk starting from where I live, we are likely to have left ‘my neighbourhood’ before you have told me your worries.

As most facilities were closed, these meetings must have taken place in public space where people adapted routines. In our additional qualitative work, for example, we met two theatre performers who walked in circles around a small inner-city square with beers in hand. They explained that, about once a month, they would meet for a beer in a bar. They lived close to one another and their families, which both included small children, were friendly. They had been friends before moving into the same street; now that they lived close by, they had been visiting each other quite often with the children and partners, who also got on well, and they would go on outings together. But they still broke out one evening a month just to be together to talk in a bar. Outings to the playground with the families had replaced the home-visits now and their late evening walk in circles around the square was their new ritual to replace their tête-à-tête inside.

The new private outside?
Source: Berlin University Alliance, Screenshot from the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWmIr910bmw&t (part of the channel youtube.de/WissenAusBerlin, funded by the Berlin University Alliance)

How: switching to devices

A stronger change in routines was the turn to digital communication from about 20% of all interactions to 48% of those who continued to communicate. When they used devices, they spoke less often over the phone than in 2019; video-chat boomed and using messenger services also increased (table 1)

Table 1

Share of Interactions (%) via… 2019 2020
Face-to-Face 79.47 51.64
Digital Means, thereof: 20.53 48.36
Telephone 81.59 61.59
Videochat 2.37 16.78
Messenger/ E-Mail 16.04 21.63


Did people turn their private space into a “smart home” from where they, sitting inside, connected to their friends and family outside? No: interview partners were much more likely to text or call someone else for support while outside of their home, and this is new. In 2019, 76% of the interviewees who called or texted somebody else sat on the sofa or panted up and down the living room but were inside their house. In 2020, only 47% stayed at home. And here, the neighbourhood gained in relevance. In 2019, only 17% of our interview partners who left the house called or texted another person while being in their own neighbourhood. In 2020, not only did more people speak to others per phone or video outside of their home, 66% were in their neighbourhood while receiving such support, while fewer than in 2019 did so elsewhere in the city or out of town (table 2).

Table 2

% Interactions via Digital Means: With the interviewee being… 2019 2020
At home 75.67 46.88
Not at home, thereof: 24.33 53.12
In the Neighbourhood 17.05 66.03
Outside the Neighbourhood, but in Berlin 53.41 21.19
Outside of Berlin 29.55 12.78


Why: the new private in public?

Why, then, did the neighbourhood become so relevant for digital support?

Partly, we see a shift from digital outside of the neighbourhood to local and digital communication. We may assume that many people stopped moving to their place of work or study and had less rides to therapists, sports clubs, and everything else that makes them travel the city, and that many Berliners who take public transport do so to go somewhere outside of their neighbourhood, and, finally, that public transport time is the time to catch up on messages, emails and so on. The disappearance of time-in-between different outside routines, including commuting time, reduces options to fill such ‘empty’ time with reaching out to others. For those for whom COVID19 imposed at-home-time, this may both explain that we communicated less – filling time is different from taking time – and that people communicated from their home digitally with the world.

But it does not explain why, when people engaged digitally with others, they did not stay on the couch to do so but remarkably often went outside. Of course, they may have just needed some fresh air, then called a friend in boredom and ended up sharing thoughts on their challenge. They may also have created a new form of filling time: talking privately in public while exercising by taking a walk as other forms of exercising had become difficult.

We have an additional hypothesis, subject of further analysis, namely that the ‘public’ (understood as the space outside the door of one’s apartment where access is open to all) provided opportunities for anonymity that the home did not. This anonymity served to replace the lost anonymity of the time-in-between. It also added anonymity needed for private conversations: after all, when everyone was more at home, we were less likely to be home alone if we were not living by ourselves. Although we like to think of the home as the place of warmth and safety, often it is not. Even when it is, the private character of where many people live, e.g. the space behind the front door of their apartment, rental room or house, may hamper talking to others. Not talking to anyone at home may, indeed, follow from wanting to avoid talking to people very close to us out of shame, guilt, or because we do not want them to worry.

A woman talking on the phone outside
Source: “Crossing” by byronv2 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

As an aside, a more detailed analysis of the type or relation with which people engaged shows that work colleagues, good friends and acquaintances had been slightly more often reached outside of the home, whereas people received digital family-based support slightly more often at home. This makes sense, because talking within one’s own family without the problem ‘travelling’ to your own household again may be difficult as families are networks that are by definition denser than circles of friends and colleagues.

Protecting people from worries may be as much an expression of closeness as is sharing them. In an earlier study among young men who spent a lot of time with their peers in the streets of Kreuzberg in Berlin (Blokland & Šerbedžija 2018), we learnt how the many problems which their parents had made them avoid both staying in the house and bothering their parents with their own concerns.

Anonymity means the quality of a state of being unknown or unacknowledged. It does not involve loneliness or a deprivation of social existence. It just means the absence of being known as a person (Blokland 2018: 94). Privacy, as defined by Bulmer (1987: 92 quoted in Blokland 2018: 96), is the control we have over information about ourselves. In essence, privacy is a matter of self-determination as to when, how and to what extent we share information about our personal experiences with other people whose impressions of us matter – there is privacy in the sense of a Big Brother watching us too, but this takes privacy beyond the interactions of people that concern us here. At home, this control is smallest when everyone living there is staying at home, too. We suspect that people who left their homes to communicate found the anonymity of the public for a new private: a setting where they walked down the block to share their concerns without everybody in the house, with everybody home, listening in. What better way to talk to others under these circumstances than to turn to your phone and take a walk outside?

References

Bell, Julia (2020) Radical Attention. London: Peninsula Press.

Blokland, Talja (2018) Community as Urban Practice. Cambridge: Polity.

Blokland, Talja; Krüger, Daniela; Vief, Robert (2020) Just Because We Have to Do It, It Doesn’t Mean It Is Right. Why #Stayathome Should Not Become a Moral Imperative and Social Isolation not a Habituation. https://sfb1265.de/en/blog/just-because-we-have-to-do-it-it-doesnt-mean-it-is-right/. Last access: December 16th, 2020.

Blokland, Talja; Šerbedžija, Vojin (2018) Gewohnt ist nicht normal. Jugendalltag in zwei Kreuzberger Kiezen. Berlin: Logos.

Blokland, Talja; Vief, Robert (2021, forthcoming): Making sense of segregation in a well-connected city: the case of Berlin. In Maarten van Ham, Tiit Tammaru, Ruta Ubareviciene, Heleen Janssen (Eds.): Urban Socio-Economic Segregation and Income Inequality: Springer (The Urban Book Series).

Knoke, William (1996) Bold New World: The Essential Road Map to the Twenty-First Century. New York: Kodansha International.

Small, Mario (2017) Someone to Talk To. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] https://www.berlin.de/corona/massnahmen/abstands-und-hygieneregeln/ Accessed: December 11th, 2020

[2] The survey was conducted between July and October 2020 – with a focus on the Spring lockdown.

[3] We also collected data for a larger non-representative Berlin-wide sample recruited via television, radio, social media and newspapers, not reported here.

[4] The local neighbourhood use to meet others may not mean ‘new’ others or people with whom one had otherwise not met.


Further Blogposts by the Authors:

Coronavirus Edition #16: More than jobs and making money
Coronavirus Edition #9: Nur weil wir es tun müssen, heißt das nicht, dass es richtig ist