EDITORIAL: Societal norms, greetings forever altered

The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.
·3 min read

May 4—What, exactly, is normal?

That question, always open to interpretation, has taken on new meaning during the 14 months of the coronavirus pandemic. And while we are hoping for a return to normalcy, definitions for when we have arrived at that destination will vary.

A new Crosscut/Elway Poll of adults across Washington highlights that dichotomy and quantifies the political differences that are echoed in it.

For example, when asked about shaking hands despite the pandemic, 19 percent of respondents said they already have resumed the traditional greeting, and 15 percent say they never stopped. Those answers were less common than those who said they "don't know" when they would resume (22 percent) and "maybe never" (21 percent).

Such a split is understandable; people have different levels of caution regarding the virus, and our personal reactions are constantly evolving. Meanwhile, the political split is interesting, if predictable. Among Republicans, 54 percent say they never stopped shaking hands or already have resumed; only 20 percent of Democrats fall into one of those two categories.

Some might surmise that Republicans are simply friendlier; but we'll chalk up the disparity to differences in individual responses to COVID-19. And we'll seize the opportunity to urge a little bipartisanship — at least on matters that have nothing to do with political differences.

Because, eventually, the coronavirus pandemic will be largely behind us. And at that point, we will recognize that societal norms for personal greetings and personal interactions, which have been upended by the virus, have been forever altered.

As a USA Today story noted last month: "The pandemic has taken the pressure off forced interactions and allowed us time to reevaluate boundaries around physical touch, experts say. 'It's been helpful in the sense that people get to have a little more personal autonomy, you don't have to follow that social contract that has been set up of how you are supposed to greet people,' says Ashley Peterson, a licensed psychotherapist."

Last year, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: "I don't think we should ever shake hands ever again. We've got to break that custom. Because as a matter of fact, that is really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory illness."

We'll leave that up to individuals and the people they are greeting; shaking hands carries less risk for others in the vicinity than, say, failing to wear a mask in public. But the issue is reflective of how we will need to sort out a changing landscape that permeates all social activities.

One-quarter of respondents to the Crosscut/Elway poll, for example, say they don't know when they will attend a sporting event, concert or movie; and 25 percent don't know when they will travel on an airplane. Presumably, many of those responding with caution are the same people. Meanwhile, a smaller percentage of people already have engaged in those activities that help define normalcy.

Political divides also are evident for such basic activities, but are largely meaningless. The fact is that we are living through the pandemic together and will continue to live together once it has passed.

We encourage all Clark County residents to be considerate in their interactions and to receive a vaccine if able, but ultimately those are personal decisions.

In the end, respect for others will help us come together. We can shake on that — or not.