So we’re now moving about in the new world. Not loafing in armchairs in the local café, but queuing on giant yellow footprints spaced two metres apart for a takeaway coffee. Not dancing in the kitchen with twenty friends but sitting in a circle of six, in the garden, two arms lengths apart, like a cross between an AA meeting and a chaperoned double date circa 1810.
Go to the doctor and there are no magazines in the waiting room, the seat next to yours will be occupied with a sign asking others not to sit there, and you’ll be invited to wear a mask and hand sanitise every step of the way by someone behind glass whose face is only visible from the nose bridge up.
Everything is either a bit different or unrecognisably altered and it requires more considered behaviour and a new higher standard of manners. It just works better, and feels better if we’re all on board with the new etiquette. And who knows, we may get to like it. Here are the basics:
1. Find an alternative smile
You can’t see anyone’s mouths at the moment (someone has invented a see through mask, but for the time being most of us seem to be stuck in the turquoise paper knicker variety). This is disconcerting for those of us who are used to saying something cheeky counterbalanced with a smile and a chuckle (a chuckle can sound slightly menacing if you can’t see the chucklee’s lips) and for those of us who sound gruffish, flatish, boredish, again without the reassurance of a broad grin.
The answer at first appears to be (and we’ve made these mistakes so you don’t have to) to wink encouragingly whenever you would normally have smiled; to shoot your eyebrows or wiggle them up and down; or to scrunch up your eyes as if in a sandstorm. Possibly the people on the receiving end of this appreciate the effort but it feels pretty unsatisfactory.
The best smile alternative is probably the good old thumbs up, two if you’ve said something really provocative, or a happy wave. Also lots of nodding works in lieu of an interested half smile.
2. We all need to move around in the new world like Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy
Which is to say be aware of the approach and retreat of everyone around you and react respectfully. Sometimes someone will barrel towards you in Tesco, but if you make a decisive step back in the manner of a courtier deferring to Henry VIII (no need to look down or take off your hat) they’ll almost always look shocked, mutter thank you, and then, possibly, not do it in future.
3. Remind each other, politely, of the SD rule
People forget the new order – and not just older people. When someone is blocking your exit then a cheery ‘Hello! Coming through!’ is the acceptable response. Or if Mr and Mrs no spatial awareness approach you with Google Maps to ask where the café in the park is, just say ‘Woah! Social distancing, everybody!’ and they will guaranteed leap back like scalded cats. No feelings hurt.
4. When wearing a mask in a mask-required area don’t wait for a bit and then tuck it under your chin like a beard net
(If it’s steaming up your specs pinch the nose area). Mask cheating is tempting, but a very bad look.
5. Don’t show any interest in what the neighbours are up to
Should you see them in a car piled high with luggage don’t stop to pass the time of day. Don’t note that they’ve got the builders in/their parents who live in Florida/two children who weren’t there last week etc.