I grew up in the South, the part of the country where we regularly greet each other with a cheery “Good morning!” Or a friendly “How ya’ll doing?” at any other part of the day. And by each other, I mean neighbors, friends, and even strangers, passers-by on the street. So ingrained is this habit after years of living in the Northeast, I still find it hard to stop myself from doing it. That is until I’m reminded by the famous New England icy stare or deliberate dismissal.

But all it takes is a crisis to upend all norms. During the last couple of weeks wherever I go on my limited trips outside, I’ve been greeted by practically everybody who crosses my path —from a proper social distance of six feet away, of course. At first, I thought it was a fluke. The out-loud musings of people grateful to talk to somebody new, even within shouting distance. But, no, it’s not a fluke. Now, I hear the same two words whether coming or going — "stay safe.” I automatically repeat the words, while marveling at this out of the ordinary outreach.

But it’s left me pondering how it is that it took a COVID-19 imposed isolation to stir a seemingly latent need for community. A need that flies in the face of the myriad surveys which continue to confirm Americans don’t typically know their neighbors or even want to know them. A 2018 Pew study revealed that only 26 percent of those surveyed knew some of their neighbors. The same study found that even in the digital age, neighborly interactions are more likely to happen offline, in person. Makes sense then that, right now, so many heretofore strangers-next-door are finding connections even in brief public exchanges.

By the way, I do know my neighbors. I’m part of that small percentage of folks in the Pew study who not only know all their neighbor’s names but also occasionally socialize with them. Since the Governor’s strong suggestion that we all stay and or work at home, we’ve been checking on each other more than usual. And we’ve been taking a minute to talk about our virus anxieties during spontaneous sidewalk meetings. I’m grateful for these already established connections with people I know.

I am awed by the people going out of their way for people they don’t know. I’m not talking about the individuals we all recognize as living saints — those people who offer up one of their kidneys to strangers. But these last few weeks I’ve witnessed the not quite saints, the regular people, offering up a rush of genuine humanity for many who are struggling. I always thought extreme stress brought out the worst in all of us. But, surprisingly, the evidence shows just the opposite. In 2017 Scientists at the University of Vienna demonstrated that stress goes beyond helping us manage threatening situations. That, in fact, the stress can also increase empathy, what they called “prosocial behavior." If this continues to be a part of the much-touted new normal, we could be all the better for it.

The infectious disease experts are almost certain that we’re still at just the beginning of our isolation, self-quarantine and social distancing. Until the virus spread can be managed, we’re not going to be able to stand close together for a while. Might as well get to know each other better. Stay safe.