One casualty of the current pandemic is likely to be good manners. True, manners and civility have been dying for ages, but COVID-19 is sure to finish them off. Which is too bad.
We often think of manners and civility as the same thing, but the first is only a part of the second. Civility is the sum of all the sacrifices that we make for the sake of living in a workable society. Manners matter to civility not only because they are valuable in themselves (although they may be) but because they have traditionally constituted what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. described as our “letter of introduction” to strangers. At a time when information about people was relatively expensive, Schlesinger saw good manners as signaling what sort of people we were.
In the post-pandemic era, manners will be different because our letters of introduction will convey a different message. What we’ll largely be doing — what we’re doing already — is signaling that what we care about most is our own safety and that of our loved ones.
Social customs can be sticky, but I predict some pandemic-induced changes will last.
Diffidence will rise. We will no longer be judged unfriendly for refusing to strike up conversations with strangers, masked or not. We’ll be less likely to hand cash to the homeless. We’ll be wary of crowds, though not entirely: Whether via vaccine or herd immunity or virus burnout, bars and restaurants and movie theaters will eventually fill. But away from the close-quarter destinations we choose for ourselves, altering our path to avoid others will no longer be seen as rude.
The Golden Rule will crumble. “No, please, after you” will die out. Nobody will hold the door for anybody else because nobody will want to touch the handle that long. To step aside and let someone pass is to let that person get too close. No longer will we hesitate to press the elevator’s “door close” button in a late-arriving rider’s face, or to demand that the manager put a coughing patron out of the restaurant.
As memories of pandemic shortages linger, we’ll become hoarders. Homes will be well stocked with paper goods. Cleaning products will vanish from the shelves as rapidly as they appear. (Yes, we could reduce this behavior by letting the prices of sought-after goods rise, which would lead to … oh, never mind.)
Now for the hard one: the handshake is dead. Everybody says so. But from the point of view of civility, this will create a problem. Shaking hands traditionally signaled a lack of aggression. The open palm holds no weapon, and, while locked with someone else’s, cannot draw one. Bumping fists or elbows cannot carry the same signal. Maybe we’ll make no physical contact with strangers at all. Expect a lot more smiling and bowing.
But the end of handshake could lead to information loss. Across a variety of contexts, the act of shaking hands makes a difference in our evaluations of strangers. Some non-Western cultures employ a complex spectrum of tactile pressures to send various social signals through the handshake.
Consider business. Researchers say that the “quality” of handshakes between interviewers and interviewees strongly influences hiring recommendations — at least when the interviewees are male. Handshakes also matter in business negotiations. During past pandemics, executives continued to symbolize the deal with a clasping of hands even when other people were shying away from the practice.
Then there’s diplomacy. Consider the iconic 1993 photograph of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands at the White House to symbolize their agreement to the Camp David Accords. Around the world, the image was cited as evidence that the violent standoff in the Middle East would finally change. The handshake mattered precisely because it was so hard to believe it had happened. Socially distance the two leaders and the photograph becomes incomprehensible, signaling nothing in particular.
All of which leads us back to civility. If civility implies sacrifice, which sacrifices will survive? Unless things normalize swiftly, I suspect that the answer is, not many — at least among the public at large.
We could imagine a bifurcated future, however, in which traditional manners continue fading from popular use but survive in such specialized arenas as business and international relations. Shaking hands, sitting in close proximity and holding the door might be preserved in those arenas, just as they’ve retained archaic formalities in contracts and flowery language in diplomatic notes.
That isn’t to say that we won’t develop new norms of civility. Retail shoppers, for instance, nowadays wait with visible patience for others to clear narrow aisles. But the norm involved is ultimately self-protective. (As is, it seems, wearing a mask.)
That’s why I expect to see a widening divide between a coarser world of everyday interaction and a certain gentility among those whose roles call for it. Which is perhaps another way of saying that from here on in, a lot fewer people will carry letters of introduction. Good for our physical health, perhaps, but not so good for civility.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
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