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Miss Conduct

Advice: How to decline a handshake, and other social tips for coronavirus

We’re in unknown territory here, so keep these four things in mind.

Images from Adobe Stock; Globe staff photo illustration
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Civility in the Age of Covid-19: You and another person go in for your usual hug or handshake or high-five, pause, make rueful eye contact, then choose instead to do an American Sign Language “how are you” or a Namaste or jazz hands, whatever feels personally and culturally appropriate to you, and move on. But if you’ve never been in the habit of defending your personal boundaries, now is the time to learn, and quickly. If someone still goes in for that handshake or hug, it’s perfectly reasonable to step back and say “sorry, I’m following coronavirus protocol. I’m sure you understand.” It won’t make it less awkward, but it makes your boundaries clear, and keeps you safe.


Aside from that, there’s no such thing as a coronavirus etiquette guide. Etiquette relies on a shared understanding of reality, and sufficient time to develop a set of responses to that reality, and we don’t have either of those luxuries. We need an etiquette for dealing with the unknown. Decisions have to be made — how much of X to buy, whether to attend Y, whether to have Z come over or not — with no obvious correct choice, without ever knowing what would have happened if we’d done otherwise. I don’t have the answers, but I have some advice for how to live when no one does, either.

Know Yourself. People deal with anxiety in many different ways, from flat-out denial to projecting their fears onto others to gallows humor to creating sublime art. All these behaviors are called “defense mechanisms.” It’s worth checking Wikipedia or a college psych textbook to learn more about them, so that you can choose mature defenses for yourself and understand where the less-evolved behaviors of other people might be coming from.


Plan Your Day. Keeping up with the latest developments feels vital, but you can’t get anything done if you’re continually checking the news (or your retirement accounts). Schedule time every day for checking in on friends and family; for news; for turning off the information fire hose and concentrating on your own projects; and for mindless Instascrolling or reruns of Brooklyn 99 or coloring or being whatever type of vegetable you most like to be. And then commit. If an unrelated question or to-do emerges, write it down and get back on track.

Be Kind. “At least it isn’t killing children” is acceptable. “At least it’s only killing the sick and elderly” is not.

Be Empathetic. No matter how hard your 401(K) is getting pounded, don’t complain on social media. Many people you love would give anything for that to be their biggest worry.

The pandemic will affect people in different ways, and for reasons you might not know. Chances are, you don’t know nearly as much about other people’s finances, physical and mental health, work conditions, trauma history, or family as you think. Assume that everyone is doing their best with the resources that they have.

When friends worry or complain, ask if they’re looking for help or advice before leaping in with it. They may only want to vent. Ask specifically for what you want, too, whether it’s information, practical help, or an admiring audience for your well-wrought rant against the powers that be.


If you are among those directly affected, prepare to be let down by people you didn’t expect to let you down, and surprised by those who step up. Adjust your post-pandemic life accordingly.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.