Worldwide some of our social norms are changing based on Covid-19 or the CoronaVirus. Depending on whom you ask, advise it takes 21 or 30 days to change a habit. So our “new normal” in western cultures that use the handshake like the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, and others may see seismic shifts. What are some of the changes we have already observed in everyday interactions and etiquette? Consider the following tips:
When you are invited to weekly drinks and dinner or to a small gathering, don’t feel the need to apologize or make up an excuse. Be ready with a heartfelt and insightful response such as “Our family is hunkered down at home right now. We’re taking social distancing seriously. It’s a challenging time and we’re not taking any chances. Let’s get together when this passes.” Then wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds!
Global greetings have varied since time immemorial – the bow, namaste, nod, nop, royal wave. The most unsanitary have been the cheek kiss, handshake and hug due to potentially dangerous bacteria or a deadly virus. The CDC recommends reducing all physical contact with others so germ-free gestures popular in many other cultures for centuries may become new US greetings. The traditional handshake may be ‘on hold’ in some geographical areas for an indefinite period. It’s important to understand different U.S. cultural regions – some men are going to shake hands anyway. It’s a cultural institution.
Many cultures, including my Czech family and Asian friends, require guests to remove shoes before entering the home. Indoor slippers are available at the threshold for guests to slip into as they leave their outdoor shoes. During Covid-19, asking any visitor or vendor to remove their shoes and/or use protective foot coverings is perfectly appropriate. “Thanks for coming by. For sanitary reasons, we remove our shoes outside and don’t wear them inside. We provide you with these disposable slippers and foot coverings. Please take them with you when you depart. Thanks for your professionalism and understanding.”
Putting on a Mask
When the outbreak originally happened, professionals suggested that people shouldn’t purchase or wear masks unless they had flu symptoms, like coughing and sneezing. As the weeks go by, we have had more and new information regarding the virus. Studies show that there are individuals who test positive to the virus, yet, don’t show any flu-like symptoms. These individuals, who aren’t suffering from the illness physically, are the ones potentially spreading the virus even more because they don’t know they are carrying it in the first place. Therefore, masks are now recommended for everyone whenever leaving the house to prevent the virus from spreading even more.
Petting my Dog
Walking a friendly dog before Covid-19 was time-consuming because canines are social animals and seek out people likely to rub their noses and scratch their backs. Of course, having a chat with fluffy about the coronavirus is tough – she still wants all the attention she’s been receiving. If a walker or neighbor tries to pet Fluffy, consider walking her earlier or later in the day or in a different neighborhood. If someone doesn’t respect the recommended 6-foot distance, politely say “Fluffy and I are both social distancing. Please greet us from at least 6 feet away. We look forward to seeing you after this resolves. You’ll be more than welcome to pet her then!”
Keep Your Distance
Healthy people without Covid-19 symptoms can perform essential functions, exercise, and take neighborhood walks. When we do these routine tasks, we inevitably run into friends and people we know. We have to check ourselves and avoid going into our usual habit of hugging and air-kissing. Instead – keep at least 8-10 feet away and verbally greet them with your hands at your sides or on the dog’s leash. “Good afternoon, it’s great to see you. I hope everyone is doing well?” This verbal body language doesn’t encourage hugs or forward movement, yet it includes a greeting.
Greeting with a kiss or air-kiss
A kiss on the cheek, or an air kiss near the cheek, is a common greeting for many; Europeans, Latin Americans, U.S. southerners, French Canadians. It’s not mainstream throughout the U.S., however, in some areas a cheek kiss is the standard polite greeting. During and after Covid-19, it’s best to ask before trying to air-kiss or kiss anyone unless it’s from .
Changing Your RSVP from Yes to No
Longstanding etiquette and basic social graces dictate if you responded that you would attend, you must. However, in light of coronavirus, changing your RSVP to decline and skipping the event is appropriate if it’s done immediately. (Send a note to the host explaining you regret missing the event but it’s safest for all.) Currently, health experts explain it’s all about social distancing because it’s the only way to mitigate the disease spread. Many concerts, graduations, weddings, and gatherings have been canceled nationwide.
Asking for 6 feet or more of space
Before Covid-19, asking someone step-back, stepping back from them, or reminding them of your personal space would have been a faux pas—or at least felt awkward in U.S. culture. However, today, it’s expected and if you don’t do it, be prepared for someone else to do so.
When placing a curbside, pick-up, to-go, carryout, or delivery order, ask whether it’s possible to leave a tip in advance on your credit card. Many companies and restaurants have established “contactless delivery” to safeguard the health of everyone in the chain; their customers, staff, employees, and vendors. If tipping in advance isn’t an option, place cash inside a clean envelope and write a short thank-you message outside the envelope “thanks. You are appreciated.”
Offering to Help with Packages or Groceries
Historically, if you observed a neighbor or friend grappling with groceries, heavy packages, or bulky items, it meant offer help. However, the virus can live on surfaces, so unless you’re wearing gloves and a mask, consider carefully whether to help others carry bulky items, packages, groceries. This protects them from your potential germs too.
Most global travelers understand it’s never been appropriate to place the dessert in the middle of the table and use 6 forks to share it, or nibble on your date’s sweet potato fries. The U.S. is one of the few informal cultures where this has, unfortunately, become commonplace; even though it is viewed as unsanitary by other cultures. Covid-19 serves as a reminder to our U.S. culture of why these rules were instituted. Consuming food from your own plate and declining to share is done for hygiene. When ordering to-go or delivery, ask for separate plates and serving utensils.
Before Covid-19, maintaining important business relationships required in-person meetings. These face-to-face meetings inspired respect, built trust, signaled commitment, and provided time for decision-makers to build long-term relationships. For now, just say no for your safety and everyone else’s. Propose a video call or conference call instead. These alternatives will provide you with the important time to share ideas but won’t put anyone at risk for contracting the virus. It takes the pressure off anyone else who might have wanted to cancel but were worried about doing so.
Clinking Glasses for a Toast
Touching drinking glasses or champagne stems together for heartfelt toasts hasn’t been necessary for years. Keep the drinking vessels to yourself, although you can raise them to honor someone else. During COVID-19 times, and even afterward, an ‘air clink’ is considered celebratory and sanitary.
Although society is currently in such uncertain and bizarre times, being able to adapt to the new etiquette revolving around communication and interactions will ensure good responses and reactions from others. It is important to take these tips into consideration because we are a phasing a health care crisis and following the correct precautions will bring harmony and reduce panic.
Sharon Schweitzer wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE Centre and the Intercultural Communication Institute, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, and Fortune. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards and the 2017 New York City Big Book Award for Multicultural Nonfiction.
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