The New Rules of Social Etiquette
Social etiquette shifted abruptly this year. From hugs and handshakes to no physical contact at all. From day-long face-to-face meetings to virtual. From crowded venues to isolated spaces. Many of us went weeks or even months without interacting with our extended family, our friends, our colleagues, or our business partners.
As social norms begin to shift yet again, and many of us and our colleagues return to the workplace, our interactions will have to keep up with the changes. With all the additional tension in our world right now, there is a great deal of opportunity for us to be more careful, sensitive, and intentional about communicating our needs and listening to the needs of others. As we think about the social etiquette situations that are going to appear, several are top of mind for me.
Are we meeting in person?
B.C. (before COVID-19) there were often basic assumptions that we would meet in person if we were geographically close. During the peak of spring quarantines and shelter-in-place orders, the basic assumption was that we would meet virtually, regardless of our geographic proximity. Now, we’re going to have to ask, not assume. We’ll need to find out from the other person how they want to meet. Let’s not assume we’re still using Zoom. Let’s not assume that meeting outside (with the crisp Fall air that’s headed our way) is ideal for everyone, nor that the cozy cup of homemade coffee will satisfy everyone’s cravings.
Let’s not presume to know what the other person is feeling. And let’s not judge anyone for wanting to meet in-person or online. Instead, let’s just ask, “Would you prefer a virtual or in-person meeting?”
Masks or no masks?
This is another question that we need to figure out. In a workplace, venue, or state where mask wearing is required, there’s no question. But masks aren’t required everywhere. Masks became a norm in some areas because if a person who has COVID-19 wears a mask, that dramatically reduces the chance of contagion, especially if the people around them are also wearing masks. Science has shown us that masks really work best when both people in a conversation are wearing them, and society has shown us that some perceive mask-wearing as an infringement on their personal liberties. So, we’re going to have to figure out how to talk about mask wearing in a way that doesn’t offend the other person or put someone unnecessarily on edge.
I had an opportunity to attend a neighborhood gathering this past week. One of the parents wanted to leave her kids with one of the teens in the neighborhood so that the kids did not have to attend the meeting. As we were figuring out what that looks like, I went ahead and posed the question during our text exchange, “Awkward question, but how are you guys social distancing?” I prefaced it by pointing out the awkwardness.
Even in our face to face conversations we need to give a little space for the awkward. What if we try a phrase like, “Even if it’s awkward, let’s both wear masks to protect each other.”
For ages in our culture, the handshake was a sign of respect, an indication of goodwill, and sometimes even a way to commit to an agreement together. More recently, it’s been a greeting used to establish a first connection, build a relationship, or, at a minimum, part of a ritual set of pleasantries. It’s been part of our culture for so long that I wonder what happens now?
For some, I suspect handshakes are a thing of the past. For others, they may want to get back to them. One of the alternatives along the way was the elbow bump (which, admittedly, became less desirable when we started sneezing and coughing into our elbows). We’re going to have to figure out what to do when we find ourselves in a situation where one of us goes in for a handshake and one of us does not. If you see someone coming in for an unwanted handshake do you initiate an elbow bump? But what if they think that’s gross or disrespectful? I’ve seen folks holding on to their beverages or handbags or notebooks, or even putting their hands in their pockets as they approach to give a nonverbal cue - “no handshakes here”. I’ve also heard people commenting awkwardly “I would shake your hand, but, you know…” as their voice trails off.
I think the straight up disclaimer on this for a while might be pretty safe, “In the old days, I would reach out and shake your hand, and now, I’d like to greet you in a way that exchanges respect without exchanging germs.”
Communicating your personal space.
How big is your bubble? Out of curiosity, I had looked into why the consensus of six feet was reached for social distancing. A number of studies seemed to indicate that the aerosols or droplets that emerge when a person talks, coughs, or sneezes, could travel one to two meters, or more. Additional studies indicated that singing and other activities that forced air flow could increase that range significantly.
This got me wondering about the differences between speaking quietly or projecting across a room or even just telling an entertaining story with a naturally booming voice. Social media posts shared bars that had rolling tables with bumpers around them to maintain distance, cafes with hats topped with pool noodles, and other ways to help people keep their distance. But without these visible cues, how do we establish social distance at work?
Leaders and business owners can establish protocols for their organizations. As individuals, we might be able to put signs up at our workspaces or be diligent about stepping back when someone gets too close, but we’re going to have to be vocal and non-verbal about our personal space. We’re going to have to make it okay to say, “I’d be more comfortable in this discussion if we could be a few feet farther apart” or “I’m engaged and interested in this conversation, but I’m distracted by our proximity, if we each took a step back, that would help me be able to focus on this conversation better.”
Participating in a group situation.
You could be having this experience personally, or it could be someone else joining a group you’re a part of. You have been social distancing with your family, or you know the protocols your colleagues have been following, so you are comfortable around them, but someone else has been invited over or just shows up. How do you make sure that person is comfortable? How do you make sure you are comfortable?
At the neighborhood get-together mentioned previously, there was a big circle of chairs outdoors and there was an opportunity to move in closer for intimate conversation and fewer bugs. Many of us simply said, “no, thank you”. There must be a balance separating yourself from those situations.
As hosts or participants, we need to be aware of different perspectives and raise conversations to help others not feel awkward or unsafe. As leaders and influencers, we need to be conscious of the group dynamics - not just from a forming, storming, norming, performing standpoint, but also from the standpoint of the health and wellbeing (physical and emotional) of those involved. As individuals, we’ll have to keep expressing our own perspectives gently, kindly, and with grace, without compromising our beliefs.
Someone does something you are not comfy with.
Another topic we’ll have to figure out is how to either express or get past displeasure and discomfort in these situations. Perhaps you were working and someone coughed or sneezed near you. Maybe they walked up to your door and came right in without a mask when you’d been so careful and so intentional about mask wearing. What do you do?
We should be honest with ourselves and know that while we can ask people to maintain distance and follow protocols, things will happen that we weren’t expecting. I suspect we’ll have to figure out how to turn our internal “ewww” into something more productive in the workplace. If someone sneezes, be aware that they may have had no control over it, and simply don’t react or offer a gentle “bless you”. For other kinds of things that make us uncomfortable, we may have to have some of those uncomfortable conversations to prevent future discord.
We’ll want to make sure we don’t project in an unhelpful way, but rather share discomfort in a way that is productive. We may also have to look in the mirror and see what we can do to increase our self-management in situations like these.
The most prevalent theme in all these social distance etiquette norms is that we must continue to be intentional about considering and caring for others in these situations. I am going to wear a mask to care for you. I am going to distance myself to show you that I care. I am going to ask you about your preferences and what you are comfortable with, and respect those boundaries, to show that I care. By doing these things, we can create an environment of reciprocity, which will in turn help us co-create better communities.