What is the difference between social distancing and physical distancing?

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread within communities, phrases such as “flattening the curve”, “quarantine,” and “social distancing” are becoming part of everyday vocabulary. It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between these terms and understand exactly what applies to you, but perhaps the most difficult to understand is the one between the terms “social distancing” and “physical distancing.” Although social distancing has been recommended by the CDC for weeks as an effective measure to help curb the spread of respiratory illnesses such as coronavirus, recently there have been a few other prominent organizations that have asked people to start distinguishing between social and physical distancing.

On Friday, March 20, the World Health Organization held a press briefing that highlighted using the phrase “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing.” The main concern is that “social distancing” comes with negative connotations that makes people believe they must cut out all social aspects of their lives and completely separate or isolate themselves from others. However, it’s important to stay socially connected, and thanks to advanced technology, there are a variety of ways to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, including video calls, texting, and playing games together over the internet. The WHO emphasizes that people should preserve their mental health just as much as their physical health. You should absolutely keep six feet of distance from people other than those who you live with—but this doesn’t mean you need to stop interacting with those you care about.

difference between social and physical distancing

Physical distancing involves physically keeping yourself away from other people, but staying socially connected, and the WHO would like everyone to adopt this distinction. It is possible to keep connected and have relationships with other people, without being physically present in the same room. “Connected while apart” is the main concept. Actions of physical distancing include:

  • Working from home instead of in the office and staying in touch with coworkers
  • Closing schools and taking classes online, speaking daily with your teacher and other students through video chat
  • Calling your parents instead of visiting them in person
  • Hosting a happy hour over the internet rather than meeting up for drinks in person
  • Having an online game night with your friends

As the pandemic continues, distinctions such as this will likely continue to emerge. It can seem overwhelming, but each person has a small part they can play to help slow the spread of illness. By practicing physical distancing, you can help protect your own health and the health of others in your community.


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