I’d been sequestered in the Sierra all week, seeing no one but my family and the 5 feet of snow we weren’t allowed to ski in, so our return to the newly locked-down city was especially eerie. The Bay Bridge devoid of traffic. Haight Street sidewalks deserted. Buses empty. The gravity of the novel coronavirus began to sink in. But, wait, was that someone walking out of the Ice Cream Bar with a $9 waffle cone?
“Oh, can we get ice cream?” my kids squealed from the back.
“What?! Of course not!” I shrieked, suddenly turned into a shrew.
We unpacked the car; all at once there were so many people. Kevin, from across the street, confessed that his teenage son may have been exposed to COVID-19 at a sleepover because the dad of that house just tested positive. You let your kid go to a sleepover party?! I managed not to scream. Pride in my self- restraint was short-lived. When neighbor Nancy, back from a speed-walk, came over to say an innocuous “hi” to my husband, I did scream, loud and shrill: “You’re too close!”
What was left of my manners? Nothing, apparently, by the time I escorted my son to see his friend, from a distance, on the sidewalk. Sweet Miles had brought Oren a gift, a small Ziploc of gummy bears, which he tossed across the 6-foot, invisible divide. “Nooooooo!” I yelled, as the baggie, clearly covered in a thousand viral droplets, arced through the air slo-mo-style and landed in my son’s little hand. Seeing the horror on my face, Miles’ mom apologized profusely. Miles himself began to cry. I felt like a madwoman. Or just — more accurately — an ass.
Courtesy and civility, always important, matter even more in a time of crisis. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the very meaning of those terms — and doing away with handshakes is the least of our conundrums. When epidemiologists tell us the kindest thing we can do for our fellow human is to avoid them like the plague they might harbor, manners inevitably take a hit. It’s an “exogenous shock” to our norms, says Jennifer A. Chatman, a professor of management at UC Berkeley. “What you’re seeing now is that people are negotiating what those new norms should be.”
The point is worth remembering: We’re the ones writing the new rules of etiquette; the new customs are in our (chapped-from-scrubbing) hands. Some lovely new traditions may yet emerge from what otherwise seems a manner-pocalypse. “Be your most positive, vibrant self,” counsels fourth-generation etiquette expert Lizzie Post. Her preferred greeting of the moment is a Middle Eastern custom, she says: placing a hand over your heart, with a slight bow of your head. “It’s such a beautiful way of greeting people, I wish we did it all the time.”
Maybe, when all this is over, we will. In the meantime, some suggestions on staying human while complying with our new order:
On the sidewalk: Eye contact won’t kill you
We in the Bay Area have never been big on acknowledging the strangers we encounter. Maybe it’s time to change that, given that many of us are now stepping off the sidewalk and into the street to keep our 6-foot distance. Next time, try that little half-circle with a smile — or at least a nod, a look in the eye, or any subtle acknowledgment of our new spatially awkward custom. Also, I’m no expert, but it’s gotta be OK to stop holding our (my) breath. (And to those who continue to commandeer the 3-foot-wide path in Golden Gate Park without shuffling to the side, who are you? It’s worse than manspreading on Muni. Make room.)
At the grocer: Practice personal-space shopping
It’s not so easy in those narrow aisles but please, give your fellow shoppers some space. If two people are picking out their dozen boxes of pasta at the same time, that is not 6 feet. Quell any impulse to hold open the refrigerator-section glass door for someone; chivalry is dead for now. And don’t make anyone else hold open the door for you so that you can sneak in and grab your eggs without touching the germy door handle. (I’m talking to you, dude who got way too close the other morning at Luke’s Local.)
Resist the urge to hoard
In recent days, you may have encountered Amazon’s doomsday note, “We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock” — especially if you searched for, oh, toilet paper, yeast or Rao’s tomato sauce. Perhaps your heart raced and your chest tightened. But the Bay Area — and America’s — food supply is healthy and, as Chronicle reporter Janelle Bitker recently wrote, “There’s no need to panic.” There is, however, a real need to resist the impulse to overbuy so there’s enough for everyone. Trader Joe’s has propped up in-store signs, written in a sweet cursive, asking customers to “show kindness” by not buying more than two units of any single item. “Let’s Get Through This Together,” TJ’s urges. #truth.
Throw money around (if you have some)
Everyone who is still out there in the working world — chefs, delivery drivers, pharmacists, grocery clerks, and above all doctors and nurses — is risking their lives so the rest of us can shelter in place. Now is not the time to skimp on appreciation: May we suggest a minimum 20 percent tip? If there’s no way to tip gracefully (Walgreens and Whole Foods execs: It seems like a good time to roll out the tip jars), a heartfelt thank-you and smile is the very least you can do.
Apologize as necessary
Remember Neighbor Nancy, victim of my fear-induced wrath? I later emailed her to say I’m sorry. (I wasn’t going to, God forbid, ring a doorbell!) She understood. “For 1/100th of a second I felt a sting,” she replied. “For the rest of that second, I felt gratitude.”
Thank your teachers
Parents of younger kids are enduring their own version of hell: homeschooling. Show them compassion. Just because someone pushed a child or three out of her body does not mean she wants the sole responsibility of educating them, or knows anything about doing it. My 8-year-old son has spent much of his first homeschool week writhing on the floor crying, playing something previously prohibited on my phone called Pixel Gun 3, and asking for snacks and sandwiches every hour. So on behalf of struggling parents everywhere, please keep reports of your A-plus, Harvard homeschool to yourself.
Bring back “I hope you’re well”
Crafting an email to colleagues in the Age of Corona isn’t easy. Even if you don’t know what others are dealing with — illness, economic trouble, son writhing on the floor — you can be sure it’s a doozy, if not an outright cluster. Not acknowledging the severity of the times seems, in some way, uncouth.
Not long ago, there was a movement to do away with certain superfluous, empty-sounding greetings in email. Though I stopped leading with “I hope you’re well” long ago, I’ve started using it again, or sign offs like “Be well.” Where once I heaped scorn on “Take care” — irritating and dismissive, I thought — I’m now using that one, too. Because now I really, truly, mean it.
Rachel Levin is a freelance writer and author of “Eat Something,” published this month by Chronicle Books.