The great fact of changing mores in the past few decades has been the death of distance: not just geographical distance, thanks to the internet, but also social distance. Divided cubicles gave way to open-plan offices and restaurants started asking their customers to share a table with their neighbours. Handshakes turned into man-hugs. French-style cheek kissing became universal. Even Anglican vicars – who once boasted the stiffest of upper lips – encouraged their (usually elderly) parishioners to embrace each other
Thanks to covid-19 we can kiss goodbye to all that: social norms that have been forming for a generation are being re-written in an instant. If we must go to meetings, we’re advised not to touch each other; if we go to restaurants or bars, we’re told to sit or stand six-to-ten feet away from strangers. We begin and end meetings by washing our hands, as if to cleanse ourselves of our interlocutors.
This sudden change in etiquette is generating demand for advice on social etiquette far beyond the greet and goodbye: we need a new Ms Manners for the age of face masks and social exclusion. What is the best way to ask people in the supermarket queue to stand a bit farther away? If you have to take a taxi is it reasonable to clean the car-door handle or seat with a sanitising cloth? As social interaction goes online we’re confronted with questions about virtual manners too. If you can’t catch the eye of someone who’s droning on in a meeting, how do you interrupt them? How do you move the electronic gaggle from one subject to another?
Putting an end to all the hugging and kissing is no bad thing as far as some of us are concerned. But the humble handshake has been around for centuries for good reason. In more barbarous times people held their hand out in greeting to prove that they weren’t carrying a weapon to wield if the chat didn’t go too well. Today it serves subtler purposes: as well as filling the awkward moments when you first meet a stranger, the limpness or firmness of a handshake provides an additional way to judge them.
As creatures of social ritual we’re quickly improvising new virus-proof greetings (even air kissing is now deemed too intimate). The “bicep squeeze” emerged as a new salutation at Paris fashion week. The citizens of Wuhan, the city in central China where the epidemic began, developed something called the Wuhan shake – a foot-waggle that involves tapping your shoe to another person’s. Unlike the virus, this doesn’t seem to have travelled far beyond China (the Chinese also have a new fashion for taping off squares on the floor of a lift, demarcating where to stand to keep your distance from your fellow passengers). Another solution is an elbow bump first popularised in the Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement in Hawaii in the late 1960s, which has enjoyed periodic revivals during subsequent epidemics, particularly the Ebola epidemic of 2014, which led to its nickname, the “Ebola elbow”. Though even old-fashioned British parliamentarians can now be seen bumping elbows, I doubt that Ebola elbow will endure: it requires odd contortions and provides none of the tactile information that handshakes provide.
The doffing of a cap was a fine salutation for an age when more of us wore them. Though newspapers are currently full of metaphors about fighting the virus, saluting people seems out of keeping for our civilian times. There is also plenty of talk about going back to the past, reviving curtsies or bows seems inappropriate. Instead of looking to history, we should instead seek inspiration from other countries. The Indian-style namaste greeting involves pressing your palms together and bowing a little. A gentle head-nod, a subtle hand gesture, a pleasant smile – what could be a more elegant way to greet a potential plague carrier? Both Prince Charles and Emmanuel Macron have proved to be powerful ambassadors of the namaste.
The question is whether the new codes will last beyond the current crisis or, when covid-19 is finally tamed, be it by herd immunity or a scientific miracle, will we simply resume hugging and kissing? My bet is on the future of social distancing and the end of hygienic promiscuity. Diners had already become so fed up with sitting cheek-by-jowl that they were joining expensive clubs that provide more distance between tables, or adopting clever techniques like Larry David, who, in the latest series of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, dons a “Make America Great Again” hat to deter diners from sitting anywhere near him (at the moment a simple cough will do the same job). Many employees have become so sick of open-plan offices – those testimonies to corporate skinflintery masquerading as woke working – that they had taken to adopting desperate techniques such as wearing giant headphones at all times, or colonising chairs in office corridors.
We know that over time social rituals change beyond recognition. When Erasmus first arrived in England from Paris in 1499 he was astonished to see how much fonder the English were of kissing each other than the prudish French. “When you arrive you are received with kisses on all sides”, he said, “and when you take your leave they speed you on your way with kisses.” Wherever one turns, “the world is full of kisses”. The fashion for kissing didn’t make a reappearance for some centuries, and by the 19th century the British were so lacking in public displays of affection that they’d acquired a reputation as the most stand-offish people in the world.
Now another revolution is beginning: the fashion for kissing and bear hugs will soon seem not only dated but disgusting. People will pride themselves on keeping a decent distance from their fellow humans not just because they want to avoid catching something – but because it is the right and civilised thing to do.