In these times of social distancing, we're going to have to accept that things are going to get awkward, writes Pallas Hupé Cotter.
I have friends who are huggers, and people who know me know that I'm a hugger. I even sign off emails with "Hugs, Pallas." So it’s hard for me to be able to push people away, say "stop!", or stop myself when presented with an opportunity to hug.
But I'm going to have to find a way. Fast.
We're all going to have to learn to override our deeply ingrained social impulses as long as COVID-19 hangs around. Instead, we're going to have to give "social consent" to be anti-social, at least for the time being.
It dawned on me just how challenging this would be when I travelled from the small town I now call home to the "big smoke" of Wellington, my former home. At the time there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in the capital city. It was about a week before social distancing became a thing, but talk of the virus was still in the air, so to speak. It felt like an inevitability and I found myself struggling with how to react. I had trouble overcoming my human inclination to share a warm greeting with my old friends. It was hard to override my training to be polite.
Two friends who had daily contact with elderly relatives tried to keep their distance, but I forgot myself and hugged one at the end of a catch-up. Mistake one. I was facilitating a conference with some international participants, and out of polite habit, extended my hand for a handshake. Mistake two. Out came the hand sanitiser, surreptitiously.
In a desperate attempt to avoid three strikes, I awkwardly tried something I'd just read about on the way to our meeting place with the next person I met. When I went in for the elbow bump, utter confusion crossed her face. And yes, that was totally embarrassing. But when I explained to her what I was doing, she was enthusiastic and tried it on someone else.
This is what "social consent" looks like. And right now, it's urgently needed.
Of course, I then wondered, what good is an elbow bump when we're all sharing tapas and drinks sitting less than 1.5 metres from each other? Snap! Now I know that this was my third mistake.
A lot has changed since my trip, and every day we get new advice about how to keep ourselves and others safe. That means that there's a lot we're now going to have to learn to navigate. It will require using common sense, calling on critical thinking skills and learning new ways to communicate, both verbally and non-verbally.
We're going to have to train ourselves to be anti-social. Not forever. But for now.
I know it doesn’t feel entirely real. I can't be the only one who wakes up to the latest updates on my newsfeed thinking that maybe I'm still dreaming. The last time I felt this way was after Trump was elected. It takes a while for our brains to catch up to a fast-changing and unfamiliar new reality, but reality is starting to sink in. We're not going back to business as usual for a while yet. There’s no time to "wait and see" – there’s no room for denial.
This also feels like a test of how rational human beings can be. To see if we can resist giving in, either to exaggerated fear or to social pressure. Letting go of caring what other people think (which we are so hard-wired to do) and doing what's ethically right. Sacrificing for the greater good, not just prioritising our own individual wants, needs and comforts.
So here’s how I’m going to change what I do, how I react in social situations:
- I'm going to imagine a bubble around me every time I walk out the door and try not to pop it.
- I'm going to wave and smile at people and then cross my arms to signal that is the extent of my greeting.
- I'm going to steel myself to withstand the exaggerated sighs and rolling of eyes that may follow.
- I'm going to have my language ready, a rehearsed line, that may sound something like this: "I know it may seem unnecessary, but why take the chance? What's there to lose, really?"
As straightforward as it might seem, this being anti-social takes both preparation and practice.
As someone who's only known risk is mild asthma, I will continue to leave my house, be active and support local businesses. I'll take whatever precautions around sanitising and social distancing the experts advise. I'll check my supply of canned food (and yes, toilet paper) in case I need to self-isolate. By the way, this should all be in our earthquake kits anyway.
In fact, I keep thinking this is a practice run for a more deadly outbreak or natural disaster. A learning opportunity for governments to learn how to act faster, make sure they're well supplied, and communicate more effectively; for businesses (that can survive this time around) to build resilience in response to rapid changes in the marketplace; and for us personally to think before we act, make informed choices, and learn new ways to behave to minimise risk to ourselves and others.
And that includes being prepared to be judged as an overreactor by doubters, not worrying about being perceived as impolite or anti-social by others, and stopping my impulse to greet people with a warm embrace. I can still do it in writing, at least.