Sharing anecdotes to help us navigate the pandemic

It's day 35 of the official lockdown. Even before we were told to Stay At Home, life has changed utterly and none of us know for sure what the other side of this pandemic will look like. Almost overnight social norms have changed and things we thought impossible are now very much possible.

As a social scientist, I know that a crisis like this rips the social fabric of a community wide open, sharply exposing society's fault lines, changing social behaviours and social norms, and removing barriers to change.

The questions I'm thinking about are: Once the pandemic has passed what will be the enduring social norms and behaviours? What are the opportunities for businesses so they can survive and thrive? How should businesses and brands be communicating to their customers? And is now really the right time for advertisers to be making jokes?

But although I'm a researcher, I'm also living the crisis too.

Shared experiences in a changed world

As I listen to my research participants tell me about their lives during the pandemic, with one exclaiming part-way through our second interview, "This is like therapy!", I've come to realise the interviews are a form of therapy for me, too.

I find myself nodding in recognition when someone shares that sometimes it's a little tense at home right now. Or the relief when the bin men appear for the weekly collection. Or finding joy in nature: a sign that life continues around us even as our lives have, for the most part, ground to a halt. Or that their "concentration is shot to pieces". 

Making sense of it all

Pretending everything is normal, business as usual, isn't helpful for anyone.

So I am taking inspiration from strategic storyteller and content marketing coach, Sharon Tanton, who recently wrote: "I've ditched my scheduled blog for this one, because I think this might be more useful right now".

One of my aims with my pandemic research project was to "give back something small but valuable to our city: knowledge of real lives lived during a pandemic". And what I feel is useful right now is to share from my research what other Bristolians are thinking and feeling, which might help you too. 

Last week I bumped into the owner-chef of a small but successful restaurant. To survive, Sarah (not her real name) has changed her business model. Instead of cooking multiple dishes each day, she cooks only one, which customers order in advance to take away, four days a week. Although she's barely making any money, the upside, she told me with a slightly puzzled smile, is that she's got her life back. No longer working horrifically long hours, she has time to spend with her partner and to do the things she enjoys but rarely has time for: "I've read a novel for the first time in about five years".

When I told Sarah I was hearing similar things from some of my participants, she expressed relief. Which made me realise that while I want to explore the questions I asked earlier in this article — what will be the enduring social norms and behaviours; what are the opportunities for businesses so they can survive and thrive — perhaps equally important is to share these sorts of anecdotes from my research. 

Because it's through sharing our fears, sadness, concerns, and joys that we understand ourselves better and find commonality with others. And it provides succour during difficult times, knowing other people are struggling too, that we are not alone in this.

Normal transmission will resume shortly

The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming our way of relating to the world—changing our apprehension of what it means to be social beings. And we’re only seeing the beginning of how the pandemic is changing social behaviour and how life will change post-pandemic.

Over the following weeks I'll share observations and anecdotes from both my Bristol research project and what I'm also seeing at a national and global level. And I'll explain what's happening from a social and cultural perspective, and what that might mean for your business or organisation.

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Image credit: 'The World is temporarily closed' by Edwin Hooper; Rubbish collection by Jay Clark; Empty cafe tables by Muhammad Naim.