The Social Etiquette of Social Distancing

We’re living through a pandemic. This time last year I would have scoffed at such a thought. Who would have guessed that something like this could ever happen in our lifetime? I remember reading about the Black Death and Spanish Influenza at school. They felt like abstract concepts, the stuff of stories and now COVID-19 has changed the way we live so completely that life before seems like a distant memory.

Whilst the last six months in Lockdown in the UK have been challenging for all of us in so many ways, adjusting to the ever-changing rules is proving to be somewhat more of a challenge for many of us. I can understand to a certain extent why the government is trying to keep the cafes, restaurants, bars and shops in our city centres open as they have seen a huge loss in trade and earnings, jeopardizing the jobs of many and placing independent businesses under threat of closure. The economic downturn has been catastrophic.

Now that the schools have reopened, the UK government had hoped to get us all back into our offices with the knock on effect of helping these businesses as we slip back into our commuting regimes; hopping on the train to work, stopping off for a coffee at Pret on the way, grabbing some lunch from the little independent sandwich shop around the corner and hopefully heading out for a few drinks with our colleagues after work.

There’s just one problem with this strategy: – People just aren’t great at social distancing. Given the UK government’s announcement of greater restrictions this week, this should come as no surprise. Let’s face it, human beings are a social species. Our whole lives have revolved around mingling with others in close proximity. To suddenly be told to keep our distance from each other is a tough pill to swallow and seems to be proving quite difficult.

The problem with social distancing is that it’s awkward, especially with people that you know and work with. How are you supposed to say to your boss when they’re discussing a project, ‘please step back you’re too close to me’ or to your employee, ‘actually, I don’t feel comfortable with you sitting this close to me’? It’s a social etiquette minefield and it can be quite stressful. You don’t want to cause offence but you are also worried about your health. Your co-worker might have no awareness of how close they are to you or they may just not be taking social distancing as seriously as you have been. Whatever the reason, it is okay to say something to them politely, even if it doesn’t feel like you should.

Plus, it’s very easy to forget the social distancing rule when you’re back in familiar surroundings. It’s our natural inclination to be close to people when we’re talking to them, especially in an open plan office – I’ve been guilty of this once or twice already but the minute I realise, I surreptitiously shuffle backwards and no one mentions anything. It’s almost like it’s become a taboo topic for some people when in fact, it should be an open ongoing conversation for us all.

On the flip side, there are some very vocal people who will openly call out others at work who they perceive to not be social distancing, albeit in a jokey, eye-rolling manner which can cause the people around them to feel quite awkward. There’s no need to shame someone you know in public – they could be completely unaware that they are not following social distancing guidelines. It’s far kinder to have a word with them in private. If you catch them continually flouting the guidelines, that’s when it may become a longer conversation.

The same social etiquette misery can be found in social situations. If you have close friends who regularly visit and you are not comfortable that they have been out and about visiting other people, how are you supposed to ask them to ‘move back a little’ without causing offence? Depending upon the relationship you have with them, you can either choose to say something and hope that it doesn’t become an issue or you just have to be mindful of your own space. It’s important to maintain your relationships and to feel safe.

If you are aware that a family member has been regularly going out to restaurants on a weekly basis, taking advantage of the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme and you also know that they are not very good at social distancing, are you then supposed to not go and see them? What if I told you that the family member was an elderly woman with health issues who spent a good four months this year seeing virtually no one? How are you then supposed to not go and see them or to chastise their social choices when they have been so lonely for the majority of the year?

Social distancing is proving to be a tricky situation for us all. I’d love to give my friends a hug and go out for a night on the town, but honestly if I somehow ended up catching the virus and then spreading it to the people I cared about, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to forgive myself. I’m sure not everyone feels this way. I am aware that there are people in the world who have a more relaxed attitude or who don’t view the risk factors in the same way. There are even some who have their own theories about the virus being some kind of government hoax or conspiracy. Everyone is entitled to their own view and opinion.

It seems to me that the only thing we can do in our current pandemic predicament is to be mindful of ourselves. If we are uncomfortable with people being close to us, we need to step away or say something, however awkward that may be. They may be more worried about Covid-19 than you are but are just too worried about offending you to say anything or conversely, they may not care about social distancing at all. It’s up to us to respect others and ourselves right now. It could mean the difference between facing another Lockdown or helping the R rate decline. I know which one I’d prefer.

Stay safe and never be afraid to address your needs if you’re not comfortable in a social or work situation. According to the latest announcements, we will be facing tougher restrictions over the next six months. Social distancing won’t be here forever, but whilst it is, let’s get through it together.

SJB

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