Here’s something I wrote for The Age on ‘Covetiquette’.
I was raised in a non-physically demonstrative family. Kissing and hugging was not our thing. Passing the soy sauce bottle to each other at dinner was the most touchy-feely we got, and the deeper emotions were expressed in other ways. When, for example, I was upset because my Grandmother had died, Dad consoled me by offering to buy me a new tennis racquet.
Don’t get me wrong, though: if it was medically necessary to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre, we’d certainly invade each other’s personal space. But to say hello? Woah there, cowboy.
That was my upbringing, and when I was released into the world of physical greetings – handshakes, bear hugs, high fives and continental kisses – I had to learn what to do.
Initially I was flummoxed. What was an appropriate length of time for a hug? What percentage of your trunk do you press to your fellow hugger? Kissing was even more complex – lips didn’t seem to connect with cheeks. And how did people feel about tongues?
Deciding that the best way was to follow others’ lead, I soon learnt these strange rituals and was embracing and smooching everyone from work colleagues to the Coles delivery man.
Then COVID hit and suddenly I had to unlearn everything. A cheery wave from 6 feet away was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. It was confusing.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I wobbled awkwardly around people. I’d thrust my hand out and have to retract it immediately. We’d lean in for a cheek kiss then, like a pair of nervous pigeons, bob our heads back and forth when we realised it wasn’t COVID safe. What about the elbow bump, you ask. Well, I knew where everyone’s elbows had been – connecting to filthy high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and lift buttons – and there was no way I was going there.
Somewhere in one of the lockdowns (it’s all a blur, isn’t it) I mastered the required procedure. Months of a hermit-like existence meant that whenever I met anyone, I’d keep my arms firmly plastered to my sides and then overcompensate for the face mask, sunglasses and lack of physical touch by pouring all of my expressiveness into my forehead.
Then the vaccines came and lockdowns ended. I saw people on the streets greeting each other gaily like it was December 2019. Everybody was at it. At a children’s birthday party, someone extended their hand and said, ‘nice to meet you’. My mind whirred – was this a weapon of mass biological destruction I saw before me? I was weighing up whether to plunge my paw into the pink lemonade in the absence of sanitiser, but in the end I shook her hand firmly and survived.
I suspect that with Omicron here it’s all going to change again. I simply can’t keep up. So I suggest that we all just grab the sides of our jeans, dip slightly at the knees and bring back the damn curtsey.