May 28, 2020

The new social etiquette in a COVID-19 world: Part 1

UCalgary experts weigh in on the changing realities and rules in this time of social turmoil

Although our cities are, by baby steps, opening up again, we know that the effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic will be with us for many months, and perhaps years, to come. The harsh realities of social distancing are not going away any time soon. 

We can expect that our experience in places where we gather as a society — from grocery stores, restaurants and hair salons to movie theatres, gyms and airlines, to name a few — will be uncomfortably altered for some time. 

Given this rocky road ahead we’re left wondering — where do we land now as a society? What are the new rules of engagement in social situations? How do we function when we’re constantly on guard, in fear of strangers as carriers of the virus? Do we report our neighbours when they’re breaking the rules, or can that be taken to socially toxic extremes? In short, what are the new rules of etiquette in a COVID-19 world? 

With these heavy questions in mind, we looked to a few University of Calgary experts from a range of fields for insights and advice. 

The experts here include social psychologist Dr. Cara MacInnis, PhD; social philosopher Dr. David Dick, PhD; and sociologist Dr. Jenny Godley, PhD. Here’s what each of them had to share. 

COVID-19 social etiquette

Erik Mclean on Unsplash

DR. CARA MACINNIS (Psychology) 

“I’ve been thinking a lot about social norms as we re-enter the world and go back to places like stores and restaurants,” says MacInnis. “I think most of us know what we’re supposed to do, but we can predict a lot of variability in what people are actually going to do. It’s human nature to look to other people when deciding ‘How am I supposed to be behaving in this situation I’ve entered?’ And I think there’s a lot of potential for risk if we enter a place where nobody seems to be social distancing.”

You might think ‘They’re feeling safe and comfortable so I’m probably safe too.’

“And you might not keep your distance. Or, you might be feeling anxious about it but you don’t want to be the person who breaks the social norm, because you don’t want to be the person who’s acting differently.” 

Although it can make people feel uneasy, MacInnis says it will be important to speak up in these situations and “be that person who breaks the social norm.” That might mean assertively asking someone who’s standing too close to take a few steps back.  

“It really represents a social dilemma because what benefits the individual most is in conflict with what benefits the group,” says MacInnis. “But what’s best for society right now is distancing and protecting everybody. Even if it’s inconvenient for us as individuals.” 

Bring out worst in people

However, MacInnis is also concerned that our wariness of strangers will manifest itself in prejudice and discrimination. 

“I feel like people are not going be viewed equally,” she says. “Some groups are going to be viewed as more likely carriers of the virus than others. With COVID-19 we’re definitely seeing spikes in unjustified anti-Asian prejudice. Usually when we’re trying to study prejudice it’s hard to get people to admit to it because social norms suggest we shouldn’t be prejudiced. But situations like this may bring out the worst in people.”

Suddenly people are less afraid to be very blatant about their prejudices.

MacInnis also suspects that social distancing might affect the formation of new relationships. “If you’ve just moved from another city or country, or you’ve been through the end of a romantic relationship, or, you’re lonely and you just need to get out there and make new friends — what’s going to happen for those people? It’s pretty important for new relationships to be able to develop in person.

“Even if you met online, things really amp up when the in-person contact starts, and it usually involves close contact. We shake hands, we hug, we kiss. So, we’re going to miss out on all of that. I think people will find creative ways to connect, but it might be a challenge.” 

COVID-19 social etiquette

Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash

DR. DAVID DICK (Philosophy) 

As a moral philosopher, Dick thinks a lot about the intentions and consequences involved in our actions and he notes that the virus has jumbled these notions in confusing ways. “Previously benign and innocuous things are now dangerous to both ourselves and others and so we have to rethink our interactions,” says Dick. “Before, refusing a handshake was nothing other than an insult, but now it can be an act of kindness.”

Before, sharing your food was a harmless way to be generous, but now it involves the risk of death or injury.

“Because our actions have different consequences now, they have different moral values and it will take time for our norms to catch up. We now need to pay more attention than we did before both to what people are intending through their actions and what consequences those actions might have.” 

Awkward time of breaking old habits

This will involve constantly breaking the old rules of etiquette around actions, says Dick, and this will be hard to do. “Old habits will continue to guide us, and the sting of insult can remain even when it is not intended and everyone understands why the new rules are being followed. It will feel wrong for a long time and hopefully won’t last forever. What we can do is pay attention, be kind to ourselves and each other, and try not let the old rules of etiquette lead us to feel insulted or to put each other in danger. Kindness looks different now, and we’ll need constant reminders of this until its new face feels familiar.”  

COVID-19 social etiquette

Kate Trifo on Unsplash

DR. JENNY GODLEY (Sociology)

“I worry that society is going to become more divided,” says Godley. “Maybe the elderly won’t be allowed in gyms, or, certain groups will be stigmatized to the point where other groups won’t socialize with them. This virus has highlighted so many inequalities in our society and I can see people thinking ‘It’s fine for us to socialize in our safe, white neighbourhood, but it’s not okay to socialize with someone in, say, Chinatown.” 

Learn to say hello from a distance

Godley has major concerns about the long-term impacts of the pandemic on both social relations and mental health. “I’m missing that daily hello,” she says. “When we’re out walking the dog and we have to cross the street to avoid strangers — I think that could be quite damaging in the long term. I’m hoping that new norms will develop where we still say hello from a distance. And I think we have to be really careful that we’re not allowing prejudice to creep into these actions as well. If you’re only crossing the street if you see an Asian person, for example. It’s important to socially distance, but we have to be careful that we’re being consistent with it and doing it for the right reasons.” 

She adds: “People right now are very frustrated and, in many cases, very lonely. It’s such a stressful time.”

Anyone with school-age kids at home who are also trying to hold down a job are feeling enormous pressure. And then the people who are out of work are feeling such financial stress.

“We can predict that the mental health repercussions of this pandemic are going to be huge.” 

These anxieties don’t always bring out the best in human nature. At a time when calling out others on social media for not following the rules has become commonplace, Godley worries about an undercurrent of nastiness that’s not fully rooted in concerns for public health. 

“Look at the issue of masks,” she says. “”People get so angry that other people aren’t wearing masks, and it is understandable, but it’s also creating this right to comment on individuals in a way that we haven’t had in a long time. That’s something we need to be really careful about because there’s this anger bubbling under the surface and I think a lot of this finger-pointing can be more about our own frustrations.” 

UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.

For resources to support students, faculty, staff, alumni, and all our communities during this unprecedented time, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Community Support website.