Face It! You’re Bad At Judging Physical Distance. Here’s How To Do It
Marc Silver (00:00):
I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m lying on the ground instead of standing up and talking to you. That’s because I’m here to talk about social distancing. Oh no. Wait, make that physical distancing. That’s the term that public health officials want us to use during the pandemic. The idea isn’t that you have to cut off all social contact. When you go outside to prevent transmission, you can still say hello just from a safe distance of six feet. And when I want to make sure I’m six feet apart from somebody, I picture myself lying on the ground. And then I, um, add a few inches. Now, if I was Michael Jordan, I guess I’d be subtracting.
Marc Silver (00:37):
Now you may be wondering why is six feet? The magic number six feet is based on a lot of studies going back many decades about how far infectious droplets can travel through the air after a sneeze or a cough or a shout before they fall to the ground. And you may not think you’re sick, but it turns out a person can be infected. And not yet know it. What’s more, this novel Corona virus is tricky. It turns out COVID-19 is also spread by smaller aerosols that we exhale. And these aerosols can travel more than six feet. But in general, six feet of distance is a good rule of thumb for this pandemic. That’s what experts like Dr. Abrar Quran of Harvard told me, and it’s what the centers for disease control and prevention recommends. And so that brings me back to our first question. How do you tell if you’re really six feet apart now, in some situations, humans are very good at judging distance studies have shown. If you blindfold someone and tell them to walk a certain number of feet like six, they usually do it just fine.
Marc Silver (01:41):
But when the blindfold is off and your brain is busy thinking, you may not be as accurate social factors can affect the way we judge distance. For example, if you see a snake that’s six feet away, you might think it’s closer than it really is because it could be dangerous and scary. But if your best friend is standing six foot away, it might seem like 60 feet. So you might feel the urge to get a little closer. Then there’s a phenomenon I’d like to call line creep. When you’re standing in a line like in a store, you’re supposed to be six feet apart from other people. But somehow the distance just seems to shrink as everyone edges up. It’s human nature. We all want to get to that cashier as soon as possible.
Marc Silver (02:21):
So that’s when I picture myself lying on the ground. Another good tip to keep that six feet of distance is to think about your wingspan. If you reach out one arm and the person you’re with reaches out one arm, that’s about six feet, then there’s the pool noodle method. A restaurant in Germany made special hats for diners with six foot long foam pool toys called noodles attached. You’ve got three feet of noodle in front of you. And so does the next customer. Voila, six feet. So what do you do if you’re in a situation where someone is getting too close? If it’s just a quick pass by and the person isn’t shouting or sneezing into your face, you shouldn’t worry too much. The main idea is to avoid prolonged face-to-face contact and crowds, especially indoors where airflow can’t always disperse infectious particles, another safety precaution. Just turn your head away from the other person, then any droplets or aerosols your each admitting won’t head directly in the other one’s direction. And if you do want to say something to someone who’s uncomfortably up in your face, there is no perfect phrase, but be polite. You might try, “Hey, you probably don’t realize it, but you’re a little closer to me than six feet to protect both of us. Let’s just create a little more space.” And if that doesn’t work, you might try a gentle nudge with a six foot long pool noodle. I’m mark silver from NPR.