Over the past year of the coronavirus pandemic, millions and millions of Americans have spent much more time than usual with the people they live with. This near-constant proximity has occasionally been torturous, but it has also afforded people views into corners of their loved ones’ lives that were previously obscured. For many Americans, a year at home has revealed new dimensions and quirks of the people they thought they already knew really well.
Maureen McCollum, a 35-year-old in Madison, Wisconsin, has been with her husband for 13 years, but during the pandemic, she witnessed a habit of his that was novel to her: As he was listening to sports-talk radio in the other room, she overheard him responding aloud to the hosts. “I’m hearing all the emotions, like an ‘Oh, come on!’ when he disagrees,” McCollum told me. “Sometimes, there’s a mumbled response that sounds like he’s building on a joke they made.”
McCollum’s husband does this regularly after getting home from work in the early afternoon, but only during the pandemic, when she was also at home, was she around to hear it. McCollum herself is a public-radio journalist, which only added to her amusement. “Does he talk to me when he hears me on air?” she wondered. “Is he asking tough questions along with Audie Cornish when I’m not around?”
Lots of Americans have kept seeing many people beyond their housemates, safely or not. But in surveys by Gallup, the percentage of U.S. adults who say they have “completely” or “mostly” isolated themselves from people outside of their household in the preceding 24 hours remains substantial. It peaked in early April 2020, at 75 percent, and although it has fallen since then, it was still at 48 percent in late January.
One cost of this isolation is that people can lose touch with the versions of themselves that they were in the world beyond their homes. “Dressing differently, speaking differently, and being able to enact a different side of ourselves is one of the joys of going to work, going to worship, or hanging out with friends on a Friday night,” Melissa Mazmanian, a co-author of Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age, told me. For the past year, many people have had to cram those identities into a single physical space.
This has forced a transition from interacting in person with a broad range of people to interacting primarily with the same small crew, with few breaks from them. Dallas Knapp, a 25-year-old in Chicago who was laid off from his job at an online retail company, was already well acquainted with his roommates’ most irritating habits pre-pandemic, and being exposed to them more in the past year has made them extra annoying. “The low temp they keep the heat, the loud-as-hell blender they use every day, the annoying tapping of feet—all painfully familiar,” he told me.
Spending so much time with the same people can be irritating or just boring, but it can also be illuminating. For instance, as millions of Americans began working from home, their loved ones got an opportunity to figuratively peer over the wall of their cubicle and see what they’re like at the office. Before the pandemic, Autumn Hall had never heard her mom’s “work voice,” which she described as “cheery” and “very formal.” “My mom is the code-switching queen,” Hall, a 23-year-old in Dallas who works for a large retailer, said. “I laughed the first time I ever heard her work voice, because she never talks like that at home.”
Meanwhile, Simon Ouderkirk, a 36-year-old in Saratoga Springs, New York, who works at a tech company, was awed by his wife’s work voice. She’s a college professor, and he had never heard her give a lecture before. “I found myself finding reasons to linger outside the door of our bedroom, where her office is, to listen to her give a class,” he told me. “There’s something really special about seeing someone you care for effortlessly excel at something.”
As kids have been attending school online, parents have seen sides of them that were previously inaccessible. Joel Schwindt, a 42-year-old college professor in North Andover, Massachusetts, had never observed how his 9-year-old conducted herself in a classroom setting until she started virtual school. “I’ve certainly seen how assertive and outspoken my daughter is in class, and in a way that makes me quite proud,” he told me.
Sadly, the pandemic has also given parents more insight into how their kids respond to stress and negative emotions. Anne Patton, a 42-year-old in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who works as an administrative assistant at a software company, told me that her 9-year-old son used to love socializing. “This time at home has let me see what he looks like lonely, and it hurts my heart,” she said. Perhaps to compensate for this social deprivation, her son has started to emulate his favorite YouTube streamers while he plays video games, narrating his onscreen activity to an imagined audience, even though he’s not actually broadcasting to anyone.
The pandemic has made it strikingly evident how much time family members used to spend apart from one another; in 2020, many parents and kids went from having only a few hours a weekday together to being in the same place practically every waking hour. In some cases, the additional time together gave parents a clearer understanding of their kids. Andrea Dean, a 31-year-old in Newark, Delaware, who works at a regional bank, told me that the personalities of her “extremely competitive” 4-year-old son and her “fiery” 2-year-old daughter “became much more apparent when the chaos of ‘normal’ life was taken away.” And Brad Hargrave, a 36-year-old who works for a beer distributor in Overland Park, Kansas, told me that he and his wife were able to better address their son’s behavioral disorder after seeing it play out through remote schooling.
Involuntary isolation is a crummy way to learn more about other people, but many will emerge from pandemic life with a deeper understanding of their loved ones. When Americans fully rejoin the communities they’ve been physically separated from—at work, at school, wherever—the people they live with will know a bit more about who they are when they aren’t at home.