That urge to inch toward one another, to interact as we would normally, is something I feel, too. A few weeks ago, I was in my yard when a mail carrier arrived. I walked over, and it wasn’t until after she handed me my mail that I realized I may have committed a faux pas. I wanted to be helpful and save her a few steps, but perhaps it would have been more considerate to step away so she could put my mail in the box without interacting with me. It was, in other words, precisely my desire to be respectful and considerate that led me to cross a line.
I suspect I’m not the only one who has grappled with that dilemma, and I certainly won’t be the last to realize belatedly that I may have gone wrong by trying to do right. As we relearn how to share space, we’ll probably find that what was once polite may be rude, and what was once rude may be polite. My friends and family are full of stories about their difficulties navigating this new world, too. One friend told me about a man holding open a door to a building for her for an awkwardly long time. She felt the usual pull to accept his gesture and follow him into the building but ended up asking him to please stop holding the door — and felt strange about it afterward.
As the world reopens, it’s going to be tempting to slip back into the easy decorous norms of our old ways of relating, like my neighbor’s friends gravitating toward one another. But to borrow Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s catchphrase: We can’t be doin’ that. Seeing our loved ones — and even our casual acquaintances — may feel normal, but that very sense of complacency may lead us to do things that increase the risk in otherwise low-risk situations. We need to abandon our old norms of interacting, but that means we’re all going to have to talk with each other a lot more openly as we work to establish new ones.
To get things started, we’ll all need to be much clearer on what we are comfortable with. In the beforetimes, plenty of people hated hugs but grudgingly accepted them, grimacing only when their face was safely over the hugger’s shoulder. Moving ahead, we’ll all need to take our cues from the brave, blunt few who voiced their boundaries, even if it created social friction. More importantly, we’ll have to accept without question some people will be stricter than we are. People have different tolerances for risk, and there’s little agreement about what’s “safe.” There have been endless discussions of how many feet is safe, whether it’s okay to see friends outside, and whether people should wear masks while running. The uncertainty is difficult to grapple with, and after two months of isolation in the United States, people are making up their own rules as they go. Until we get more collectively established standards, we’ll have to accept others are likely to land elsewhere.
But we’ll also need to figure out how to uphold our own boundaries around others, lest we simply go with the flow. “It’s human nature to agree with people, to compromise and calm down a situation,” says Kathleen Smith, a licensed therapist and author of “Everything Isn’t Terrible.” “If you make the decision in the moment, you’re going to lean toward appeasement.” Imagine a dear friend swinging by with fresh-baked bread. It’s easy to imagine allowing her inside for a bit; after all, it’s your friend, and it feels awful to turn her down. But feeling bad does not decrease the very real objective risk to either of you; if you feel strongly about her not coming into your home, anticipating that scenario and thinking about what you’ll say gives you an option in the moment that enforces your boundaries rather than acquiescing to hers. Will you chat outside? How far from each other should you stand? What will you say if she wants to move the conversation indoors, or if she needs to use the restroom?
To preempt awkward moments in person, it may help to have explicit conversations with people in advance of meeting so you can talk about your shared expectations. This helps all parties acknowledge things will be different and can bring any mismatched boundaries to the forefront. You might ask about where you’ll interact — for instance, in the backyard, in chairs 15 feet apart — or other details, like whether guests are allowed to pet your dog or use your bathroom.
You might also share what you’ve been up to — who you’ve seen, or whether you’ve been going into the office — and ask the same of your friends and family. That might feel forward and strange, but it could start conversations about risks and boundaries. Family physician Evelin Dacker posted a risk tolerance chart on Facebook, which some people are using as shorthand for their attitudes toward virus risk. The chart lists patterns of behaviors and categorizes them on a scale of 0 (very strict) to 5 (very open); someone who’s a 1 (strict) leaves their home only for essentials and does not socialize with people they don’t live with, whereas a 3 (somewhat open) leaves multiple times a week and socializes with no more than 10 people. Saying “I’m a 2” could show what you’re comfortable with and give others an opportunity to express their habits using the same scale.
These conversations might become uncomfortable as they expose mismatches between your boundaries and those of your friends and family. With heightened stress and so much pandemic shaming, people may feel attacked about their beliefs. It may be smart to anticipate that, too, and express your personal rules without judging or prescribing others’ choices. Smith recommends taking an “I” position: While something like “you’re not allowed to come into the house” or “people shouldn’t be going into each other’s houses” might come off as defensive or preachy, a statement like “I’m not having guests in the house right now” focuses on your actions. Just as mask-wearing is a sign of being considerate of others, establishing expectations can be a way to show we care about others. It may feel strange to say “I won’t hug you because I love you,” but these are strange times.