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.
Read: The year we lost
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.