The other day, flogging tickets to the school summer fair – now the autumn fair due to last term’s endless self-isolation – another parent leaned across the trestle table and squeezed my arm.
The sheer unexpectedness of it threw me. It felt as surprising as a slap. When did I last make physical contact with someone outside my immediate family? This woman wasn’t someone I knew well, despite having kids in the same class. It was, nonetheless, a gesture of unmistakable warmth, but 18 months of fear-driven pandemic precautions can be hard to shake off.
I’ll admit it: part of me wanted to dive for cover. Instead, I reached out for a return bicep squeeze and then instantly leapt back, full of doubt. Was that even how this particular bit of social choreography goes?
I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt more socially self-conscious than in recent weeks. Down at the youth club for my friend Emma’s 11th birthday party, shuffling my feet to Duran Duran, hoping that nobody would notice my ra-ra skirt did not come from Tammy Girl and was in fact – whisper it – homemade? During fresher’s week, suddenly surrounded by glossy-haired, villa-tanned kids whose boarding schools endowed them with not only immense confidence but also sophisticated, readymade social networks?
To act like it’s 2019 would be unwise, unneighbourly, but to keep refusing invitations is starting to feel standoffish
Back when masks and social distancing were mandatory, we all knew where we stood. We’d got to grips with Zoom and could wiggle our eyebrows to convey a range of basic responses when we ventured into the outside world. We may even – cringe – have perfected the elbow bump. Now, however, we find ourselves in a strange limbo. To act like it’s 2019 again would clearly be unwise, unneighbourly, but to keep refusing invitations to eat, drink and be merry is starting to feel plain standoffish.
I suppose we should be thankful that we don’t live in a culture that traditionally greets with kisses. All the same, even the simplest of social interactions can become a bizarre dance. If you’re still feeling uncomfortable about shaking hands, is it better to play it for laughs and offer up a hammy bow or should you shake and then risk offence by sanitising immediately afterwards? More to the point – asking for a friend, here – at what point does yesterday’s prudence become today’s misanthropic neuroticism?
It’s important to acknowledge that, even now, there is plenty of uncertainty about the safest course of action in any given social situation – uncertainty to which sometimes arbitrary-seeming rule-making has only added. It’s left us with gnawing social anxiety, creating a situation in which acts of friendship and solicitude may be completely misread, concern coming across as coldness and affection feeling like reckless endangerment.
Has it all set us back decades in our quest to rid ourselves of our famed British reserve? Actually, there’s plenty of evidence to show our national stereotype is overblown. Even during its supposed heyday, the Victorian era, bestselling novelists such as Dickens were constantly tugging on the public’s heartstrings. And yet there’s no avoiding it: we can be profoundly awkward when it comes to social interaction. Just think of the number of times we apologise each day, all the drinking, Hugh Grant’s entire career.
Much of our go-to social banter relies on understatement. It always seems telling to me that while Americans use the word “quite” to mean very, for us Brits it means only moderately. There’s an element of concealment, too – even with today’s constant talk of mental health, we’re unlikely to respond to a “How are you?” with more than a “good”, “fine” or “not bad”. It’s disconcerting, then, to find that the tiniest of physical gestures now seem so loud, so revealing, as if we’ve removed far more than our masks.
But how should we be behaving? Before there were Covid regulations there was etiquette, a complex set of rules both written and unwritten. It tends to be associated with correct cutlery placement and the appropriate deployment of curtsies, smacking of both snobbery and social climbing. Emily Post, the etiquette queen, was a Gilded Age socialite and the earliest known manners primer, written in 2400BC by Ptahhotep, includes advice that many a junior executive likely follows to this day: “When sitting with one’s superior, laugh when he laughs.”
It can be hard to kick the need to be liked... I’m of the 'just say no' generation – are hugs the new drugs?
Even now, there’s an emerging etiquette, albeit one that skews towards passive aggressiveness. Last December, the Scottish government actually published guidance for “dealing with awkward social situations”, including this suggested response to someone sitting too close to you on public transport: “I’m happy to move if that’s easier for you?” The thing is, social etiquette generally evolves slowly, unnoticed. There’s a suddenness, a self-consciousness to this that makes it feel extra strange.
With rising hospital admissions and the risk of long Covid keeping the stakes relatively elevated, the endless internal monologue that all this social insecurity produces also shines a disquieting light on the extent to which our days are full of acts of micro-conformity. There is, inevitably, a gender dimension to it: as a grown woman, it can be hard to kick the need to be liked, to resist the urge to smooth over discomfort with compliance and a smile. Do we really care so much about what others think that we’re willing to risk our health, their health? I’m of the “just say no” generation – are hugs the new drugs?
And yet etiquette remains a feature of every society, every clique, every crew. Perhaps that’s because, on another level, it taps into our desire to fit in. While that urge hasn’t been in vogue since the 1950s, it does highlight the extent to which we really are social creatures and having been obliged to keep each other at arm’s length for so long, that’s cheering to remember.
Let’s remember this, too: good manners are about respecting others. The first US etiquette guide was written by none other than George Washington. Almost 200 years old, Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation lists 110 rules, the third of which feels pertinent to anyone considering going in for a great big hug in 2021: “Shew Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.”
As for me, I can’t wait to hug you, I might just need a bit more time. In fact, how’s about an air hug?
• Hephzibah Anderson is a writer and critic