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Familiar, but not the same. The same, but unfamiliar.


Written by Mark Freeston

As society is progressively coming out of lockdown and people are able to return to familiar and personally important high value activities, it is possible that they may not get the same signs of safety and signals that “all is right with the world” that they expect, at least not in the short term.  The activity may be essentially the same, but there may be things missing or things added that were not there before.  It may feel familiar, but not the same.  Or feel the same, but unfamiliar.

Going to a coffee shop may have been one activity that was previously comforting, normal and a familiar everyday event that would signal to us that life is as it should be. Post lockdown, the activity is the same, but with many unfamiliar aspects; queuing to get in, socially distanced tables, masks, hand sanitisers, contactless payments etc.


The things that have changed are likely to be in the small ritualized details rather than in the large structural aspects of the activity, but the absence of some details and the addition of others may change the “signal value” of the activity, especially for those more intolerant of uncertainty.  It is not just the inconvenience or the imposition of rules or the lack of spontaneity.  It is the changes in the ritualized details (absent or added) that say “this is safe” or “this is unsafe”.


Expressions of “it’s not the same” may not just be disappointment or nostalgia. The lack of familiar signals, or the new signals the person is receiving that this is unfamiliar, may lead to feelings of a lack of safety.  When people do not feel safe they may look for signs of threat and so overestimate how dangerous the situation is, confusing absence of safety with the presence of danger and so then avoid an activity that may be important to their identity or wellbeing. Over time, the new rituals may well become part of the familiar. The routine will have been updated and the activity may provide the same safety as before and the feeling that “all is right with the world”.


As people return to work, school, or services, there will be a tendency by those responsible for the return to want to communicate the differences about how things will be in the “new normal”.  This is of course necessary, and especially for those who are dispositionally intolerant of uncertainty they may want to know these things.  


However, from an uncertainty distress standpoint, to reduce people’s situational IU in that context it is equally important to let people know what will be the same.  So, when preparing people to return to a place/activity, communications should balance what will be the same as well as what will different. For those who are especially intolerant of uncertainty, information could be combined with familiarization visits without the simultaneous demands of the actual activity on the first return.  Once again, in these visits, the emphasis should equally be on what will be the same. Practicing/repeating the new rituals associated with the return will also reduce the unfamiliarity for when the real return occurs.




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