Greeting people post-lockdown is going to be awkward at best

Hug, elbow bump, wave? Working out how you and others want to be greeted may lead to some discomfort as society opens up again, writes Atlehang Ramathesele

04 October 2020 - 00:02 By Atlehang Ramathesele
While some people may be ok with a hug now that we've hit lockdown level 1, others may still prefer to elbow bump.
While some people may be ok with a hug now that we've hit lockdown level 1, others may still prefer to elbow bump.
Image: 123RF/Raman Tyukin

When South Africans opened their eyes on a recent Monday morning, they breathed a collective sigh of relief that lockdown level 1 was finally here.

Even for someone like me, who generally took lockdown in their stride - albeit with a sprinkling of muttering "WTF?!" at random intervals - this whole thing has been rather draining.

But, while I'm delighted to enjoy a semblance of normalcy, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous.

For some reason, many people are treating the easing of restrictions like a gradual evaporation of the virus - even though, much like the viral meme says, "The pandemic isn't over just because you're over it."

Naturally, there'll be different approaches and varying levels of comfort as we tackle our ever-changing circumstances, and these will inevitably make for uncomfortable encounters.

So, as the need to reach for the mute button dwindles and e-mails find us a little more well, one hopes that hand-washing and all the other reasonable behaviours that helped us make it this far remain a priority. Most of all, though, one hopes we can tolerate each other's differences and try our best not to take things personally.

I'm not saying this from a high horse, but because I know us. South Africans love a good time and we're generally an affectionate and boisterous people - and corona fatigue is real. I've led a colourful life, including a chapter where I put in some solid hours at the smoky bar of a popular Joburg steakhouse, where I'd chuckle to myself as I absorbed the lively banter of the locals.

It felt like a hub for South Africans partial to whining and wine-ing, and I've wondered how the typical clientele endured lockdown. Now that they're back, I wonder about the sheer scale of spirited conversation in beer-soaked voices I envision taking place there.

I can just imagine that in between the requisite "Sjoe! I'm probably going to be in the trouble with the missus when I get home", and haranguing the barman to extend last rounds, there's a lot of patting each other on the back for making it to level 1. A very tactile, not very socially distant congratulation. Between strangers. This scenario, I'm sure, is playing out everywhere, from trendy cocktail bars to sports clubs.

While one person is cringing at the idea of wriggling out of an unwanted hug, the other is mortified that you rejected them. Be kind

I understand that this might feel uncomfortable to me yet be completely normal to someone else. And therein lies the rub - in the midst of this global pandemic, we've emerged with diverse ways to deal with its aftermath. And that's OK. All we have to do is respect and consider one another.

While one person is cringing at the idea of wriggling out of an unwanted hug, the other is mortified that you rejected them. Be kind.

Since restrictions were eased, I've enjoyed lunch outings and visits to farmers' markets with friends. We spray hand-sanitiser with the same enthusiasm we quaff champagne, and the familiarity of socialising with people I know is a comfort.

It's when acquaintances that happen to be at the same establishment come barrelling towards me in their unmasked glory that I get uneasy. I don't know what to do as I debate surging towards them elbows first or standing there motionless as they drape themselves around me. It's the stuff of nightmares for polite people.

Psychologist Nomsa Palesa Radebe suggests that self-preservation looks different to different people.

"As levels decrease, people think that we should all transition in the same way, when it's actually more about prioritising your personal self-care and determining your own boundaries. Once you've established that, stand in your power and communicate it effectively," she says.

Some people might have an urge to control the behaviour of others, so it's important to note that post-lockdown boundaries are up to the individual. It's not a personal affront if someone doesn't accept your social invitation or hug, especially in this current climate. You might not know their story - from living with high-risk family members to having compromised personal health themselves.

Radebe also cautions that we shouldn't be surprised when our perspectives waver. "What was initially the truth for you today might be different tomorrow. Keep reassessing and touching base with how you feel. You might not want a hug now, but be fine with it in two months' time. It's OK to change your mind," she says.

And let's face it - sometimes people genuinely forget. You get caught up in excitement and instinctively reach out to hug or touch someone. We're human. It's about recognising that sussing out how someone wants to be handled is going to occasionally garner some discomfort.

We're figuring things out in this "unprecedented time", so let's cut each other some slack. Let's try not to see people setting boundaries as rudeness or judge others who seem a little more carefree. Do what makes you comfortable, yet understand it might not be suitable to someone else. It's been a roller coaster of making adjustments as we've ushered in each new level with a different set of challenges.

Don't be kak, be lekker.


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