By Kim Wadsworth | Illustration by Lauren Rebbeck
Within the maelstrom of the coronavirus pandemic, new ways to connect with others will get us through times of forced separation.
It felt good to resume a normal activity recently, like taking the dog for a much-needed shampoo and cut at Susie’s Grooming Lounge in Norfolk. Owner Shannon Goldman greeted us wearing a T-shirt featuring a porcupine with a message: “I’m not a hugger.”
“I think people need to be more mindful than ever of personal boundaries and safety,” says Goldman. “This is my way of saying it with a sense of humor.” Clearly, even after the coronavirus crisis has passed, the tradition of the Southern hug is likely to be off limits.
Social distancing is the most enduring new rule affecting our society. As we return to the workplace, person-to-person greetings and social interactions take on a measured response. Physical contact remains limited, so how do those accustomed to gestures of cordiality adjust to this new norm? For some, it could mean hospitality takes a back seat to doing what’s safe. But it can be done with patience and mindfulness.
According to The Emily Post Institute, a trusted source of etiquette and social protocol, spoken words can fill in when body language becomes taboo. Smiling, nodding positively, and offering friendly comments while distancing all help: “Pardon me while I try to keep six feet away,” or “Sorry, just trying to keep my distance.” These verbal gestures remind others what the right thing to do is while acknowledging your struggle with this novel situation. And while it might feel awkward and impolite, it’s actually the opposite.
As greeting etiquette continues to transform around the world, many will struggle with the change while others already have no-touch traditions. Countries like France and Italy miss the double cheek kiss. In the United Arab Emirates, nose-to-nose touching is on pause. But for Japan, the deep bow greeting will carry them through, and the Turkish “eyvallah” stays in place, a saying accompanied with open right palm on the chest close to the heart conveying hello, goodbye and thanks. Then there’s always the Vulcan parted-fingered palm-forward salute of “live long and prosper” eagerly being revived by Star Trek fans.
Curious as to what the new salutation might look like, we watch politicians, heads of state and CEOs emerge from sheltering-in-place and realize the proverbial handshake and back-pat greeting have been replaced. New options include elbow bumps; the “Wuhan Shake,” in which the greeters tap first right feet then left; the namaste palm-to-palm gesture that is Prince Charles’ greeting of choice; or a simple air wave.
Ask Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan how we’ll communicate if masks remain part of the new protocol and her voice conveys concern. “I worry how we will establish new relationships and show respect to those we engage with when our face is partially hidden,” she says. “Eye contact will be more important than ever since it is the only expressive part that will show.”
McClellan suggests that if we can’t shake hands then we might consider sending a handwritten note as a personal acknowledgement of the meeting. “Between all of the emails and Zoom teleconferencing, this could be a refreshing and appreciated response.”
One place where limited contact will be challenging is within the many churches and synagogues throughout the area. “The Episcopal Church is a hugging and tactile religion,” says Rev. Canon Win Lewis, rector of Christ & St Luke’s in Norfolk. “I think people need direction as they try to live one day at a time. Staying hopeful is the best thing we can do.”
Lewis says finding what will sustain parishioners in body, mind and spirit through contactless rites isn’t easy. “Greeting others with a hand gesture of palms together symbolizes ‘the God in me honors the God in you.’ There is a sacredness to this that has more meaning than ever before.”
Kim Wadsworth has been a source of etiquette protocol for 20 years. Hear her most recent podcasts on Mind Over Manners at WHRV.org/MindOverManners.