The Ten-Foot Rule

CWRU School of Medicine Dean Pamela B. Davis, MD, PhD

The college my husband Jim attended had an informal ten-foot rule (even way back then.) The rule was: if you approach another person within ten feet, greet him/her, speak and pass by with pleasantries. The obvious goal behind this rule was to reach out and connect with people. 

Sadly, our new ten-foot rule stresses that we stay at least ten feet apart from each other (or six feet if we are in closer quarters) – and now this enforced separation has been increased by the edict that we all wear masks in public! Normal interaction between humans today is interrupted, stilted, and difficult. We cannot shake hands, hug or brush by others. We do not stand in line close to others. I worry that this will lead to the depersonalization of human interaction, and to less day to day satisfaction with our own humanity. 

How can we begin to make things more personal again under these restrictions? We need to make it even more important to smile beneath our masks (the eyes will show it!), nod, and say hello when another masked marvel comes within range. I suggest that we speak to others in a positive and kind fashion, not merely to ask them not to push the elevator button with their fingers! We need to take Jim’s ten-foot rule to the next level. 

Human commerce depends on human interaction – and nowhere is it more important than in the medical and scientific professions. The healing professions depend on the human element, on empathy and compassion. This is best extended in person and has always been augmented by touch and proximity. Our goal of using inter-professional cooperation to advance health and clinical care is best achieved when the professions interact in person, not only at the bedside, but apart from it. The critical aspects of this goal are respect and trust. They are built by observing body language, tone of voice (not the tinny, pixelated stuff that often comes from Zooming or WebEx-ing), smiles (sometimes hard to see in those tiny thumbnails), and by seeing and being with others outside of the meeting or away from the bedside. 

Scientific progress also depends upon collaboration and interaction, upon respect for one’s collaborators and trust in their ability to deliver valid data and thoughtful contributions to the project. I have been impressed and amazed at the COVID Research Task Force Zoom meetings, masterfully managed by Dr. Sekaly and Dr. Karn, that have been able to bring forward the best ideas among us, produce enthusiastic collaboration and support for the top projects, and prioritize the use of potentially scarce resources. But imagine how much better it will be when colleagues are able to pore over data sets together, drink coffee with the grad students and argue the mechanisms being uncovered, and develop admiration for one another’s intellect. 

In the meantime, we have to make do. As such, I suggest we go for an “enhanced” ten-foot rule: anyone who comes within hailing distance should be greeted pleasantly, even if they look like a bandit in their masks and even if they hang back from us!  And, because I am convinced that organizations move at the speed of trust, we will need to discover how to work together and develop the essential trust and respect for one another that underlie all successful enterprises. 

So, for those who are already cheerfully practicing this enhanced ten-foot rule, thank you! You are the pioneers of the new world order. A wave and crinkled eyes above the mask go a long way, as does a pleasant hello. It will prime us for the day that greater normalcy returns, whenever that day comes.