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I was raised by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who all put a huge emphasis on social manners and protocols. Meeting someone for the first time? Offer your hand to shake. Approaching a stranger while on a walk? Maintain your course, smile and say hello. A friend asks to drop in quickly? Welcome them at the door with a hug and offers of food and drink.
Those lessons — and more — were ingrained in me growing up out in Portland, Oregon. Fast forward five-plus-decades and we have the new social norms associated with COVID-19. Maintaining social distancing — among the best ways to avoid contact with COVID-19 — has me fighting three-generations’ worth of conditioned responses.
Take handshakes, for instance. That was a huge deal for my late father. One simply did not refuse to extend one’s hand upon being introduced to someone.
In fact, if you wanted to really insult my father, the surest way to do so was to refuse to shake his offered hand. That did not happen often, but when it did, the ambient temperature dropped a good 10 degrees.
Of course, my father took the whole handshake thing to the next level when introduced to anyone I happened to be dating. Hands would come out from both and, invariably the moment my dad was out of earshot the fellow would turn to me, rubbing his right hand, and say, “Man, your dad has one hell of a grip.”
He kept it up long after I was married, leaving a trail of sore knuckles and impressed men in his wake. In fact, I am pretty sure the doctor who treated him for end-of-life illness may still be marveling over the grip of a man with stage 4 cancer.
My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents also raised me to stand and offer my hand when an elder entered the room, something my dad also stuck to until his dying day.
I did not see this, but the kind staff at Borderview Manor Assisted Living in Van Buren told me of the day, maybe a few weeks before he passed, when a WWII veteran slowly wheeled himself into my dad’s room to offer his own respects.
My father, himself a decorated veteran of the Korean War, managed to struggle to a half-seated position in his bed and execute a salute, which was returned by the WWII vet. The two then shook hands and, according to the nurse who saw this, held that shake for several silent minutes looking into each other’s eyes. No words passed between them, but there was a great deal of raw emotion and deep, deep respect.
I can’t tell you how many times over the past weeks I have stuck my own hand out, only to have it rightfully rebuffed as any form of physical contact during the time of COVID-19 must be avoided. At first, I didn’t even notice I was doing it. But the other person sure did and refused to accept my offered hand. I’d be left stumbling through some sort of apology, my right hand floating all by itself in mid-air.
So, to keep the distance, I’ve taken to exchanging “air” handshakes with people. Sure, it looks like we are engaged in some sort of mirror-image mime routine, but for the time being, it’s helping us meet those social protocols.
But it’s tough. I mean, I was raised by that family who adhered to those strict social protocols. In fact, when I was in grade school I — like many other young ladies and gentlemen of Portland — attended Richard F [the “f’ stands for fussy] Billings Ballroom Dance School.
Go ahead, laugh and get it out of your system, I’ll wait.
Part of those classes was learning how to navigate certain social situations, like receiving lines. Each class ended with a different scenario in which we learned how to properly behave when going down a receiving line. None of which, needless to say, took into account COVID-19 social interactions.
So now, everything I learned during those classes is on hold. Of course, with social distancing comes the lack of any interaction, receiving lines included, so I guess I don’t really need to worry about those for now.
Speaking of meeting up with people, while we are under state-issued stay at home orders, none of us are supposed to go outside unless it is for essential needs like getting groceries, medication or exercise.
In the days before COVID-19, if I were walking Chiclet in town and saw another person coming towards us, we’d stop, exchange pleasantries and then continue on. Now, if we see someone we step far to the side or even cross the street to avoid close contact.
In normal times such behavior would be the epitome of rudeness. I mean, crossing the street to avoid someone? Really? But now it’s a sign of caring and doing my part to control the spread of COVID-19.
Likewise, for now, the days of letting people pet or play with Chiclet if we are walking in town are gone. I have no fear of her transmitting COVID-19 — to date, there is no evidence dogs carry or transmit the virus. However, there is the possibility the virus can be transferred via an animal’s fur which was exposed by someone touching it with dirty hands or coughing near it. Not only that, letting people get near Chiclet means they are breaking the six-foot physical distance barrier. I feel bad, especially when children want to pet her, but it’s for the greater good of us all.
And that greater good is why I have abandoned those long-held and conditioned social protocols. Of course, with the current stay-at-home order, the likelihood of my running into a receiving line is pretty remote.
And I predict the phrase “social distancing” will be the 2020 Oxford Dictionary word of the year. Remember you heard it here first, and keep washing those hands.
Watch: 6 ways you can prevent COVID-19