In a normal week, it’s hard to count how many times we come into physical contact with other human beings. For many who are isolating alone, this may be the longest period in their lives that they’ve gone without skin-to-skin human touch. The extreme distancing we’re seeing now is, one would hope, an impermanent change. But as more countries begin to lift their lockdown measures, we are faced with the problem of how to return to reality. How do we interact with each other in a way that keeps us safe but doesn’t offend?
For months we’ve been practising social distancing, keeping at least two metres away from each other, avoiding touching communal surfaces and stifling coughs and sneezes. It has been difficult to quash a lifetime’s experience of learned societal norms that demonstrate politeness or affection: in many cultures we shake hands when we greet new people, hug those we care for or offer a hand, literally, to those who need it.
Now we’re preparing to go out into the world once more, all those ingrained habits may have to stop. The double-air-kiss beloved by the French could be a vector of transmission; the warm embrace of Italians greeting potentially too dangerous. “Touchy-feely” behaviour in general could cease to be acceptable, and with it, everything we’ve learned about a world normally full of physical contact might change.