New rules – the Corona Sashay
Paul Batho (Geography, 1974)
In 2004 the social anthropologist Kate Fox identified a congenital and incurable disorder endemic to the English, something she defined as ‘a sub-clinical combination of autism and agoraphobia’. She named it ‘Social Dis-ease’, a condition which was responsible for a ‘general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings’. Symptoms included social awkwardness, emotional constipation and a fear of intimacy. These were blamed for a whole gamut of national behaviours, ranging from football hooliganism to an inveterate obsession to talk about the weather.
Social Dis-ease, said Fox, is the very core of Englishness. Culture, history and climate, amongst many other things, have all had a hand in its development, while the presence of the Channel has allowed the Dis-ease to fester and grow in semi-isolation for centuries. To overcome the crippling embarrassment of having to open up to a stranger (which means pretty much everyone except, perhaps, the closest of relatives) the English cower silently behind their newspapers or phones on trains and observe numberless strict, unwritten and unuttered rules of behaviour. Who can you speak to in the pub – and why must what you say vary according to whether you’re at the bar or in the gents? What can you safely moan about, and in what circumstances? Why do we apologise for everything, regardless of blame? And so on….no one tells us the answers, we just know, it is natural as breathing. It’s only social anthropologists and foreign visitors who find the endemic behaviour of the English in the slightest bit peculiar.
But now, beset by Covid 19, social behaviour is subject for the first time ever to the very strictest of rules, imposed by none other than the government and enforced by the police. How does Social Dis-ease respond to social distancing?
There are encouraging signs that, as with any virus, Social Dis-ease can evolve with astonishing speed to adapt to its new conditions. Take just one example of something that’s still permitted – a walk in the country.
This is an activity that has always been governed by strict social rules. On encountering a stranger on a footpath, a brief ‘good morning’ is expected which must be followed by no more than two or three words about the weather, and then only if it is truly exceptional. No slowing the pace, the slightest of smiles, eye contact limited to a millisecond or two. But beware! Utter nothing and you’re silently damned as an inveterate townie.
Meeting someone you know is different. A minute or two of chat is expected, so long as it’s not too serious and preferably on a subject involving pets. In the absence of pets, children can provide an acceptable substitute. Both parties are, however, inwardly straining for that ‘Well, must get on’ moment and a return to comforting introspection.
Under the Corona Clampdown, rural footpaths are dotted with people desperate to escape the confines of home for an hour or so. They will mostly be strangers to you yet in these new times, the Greeting Strangers Rule still applies, though with subtle variations. One of the less-reported symptoms of Social Dis-ease is the ‘Importance of not being earnest’ rule. It’s all well and good being serious but there’s something about the zealot that’s frankly just not on. One simply must be seen to be taking the current crisis in one’s stride; hiding behind a handkerchief face mask, head bowed, is just a bit too committed and yet on a narrow strip of path the magic two metres separation can be impossible to achieve. Wracked with uncertainty and embarrassment, yet keen to avoid an untimely end, how to proceed?
Try this. Take a deep enough breath to last until you’ve safely passed the approaching stranger. With reddening face and bursting lungs, walk on and, as you pass and with your last gasp let out a ‘good morning!’ in a tone and with an expression that shows you’re the sort of person who, while duly concerned about the current situation, is loth to take it too seriously (this may take a bit of prior practice at home in front of the mirror). Having passed walk onward, holding your breath until the threat of inhaling lingering germs is overcome by giddiness and crushing chest pain, then pause and gasp like a recently beached halibut as the stranger disappears from view.
Meeting an acquaintance, though, is different. You see someone approaching and must brace yourself to (a) greet them in the appropriate tone (see above), (b) make it quite clear that, even though more than half an hour from the house, you’re a truly responsible member of society and not actually enjoying yourself (c) revel in a bit of human company for a change and (d) make good your escape. But how?
Endless TV costume dramas, backed by the novels of Jane Austen, has taught us that the beaus and belles of the Regency ballroom hid their passions behind the formalities of the dance and a little of their skill can be transposed to 21st century Corona-bound England. Back on the footpath, like long lost lovers across a dance floor your eyes meet and you begin to perform a gentle but purposeful sashay to the left. If you’ve been sufficiently purposeful your friend should do the same, thus avoiding that excruciating zig-zag as each tries over-politely to make way for the other. As you near your target, a breezy greeting deals with that ‘what am I doing here in a period of grave national crisis’ question: ‘‘So lovely to be out, just for a few minutes!’’
Next, the right-side pass: as you near each other, extend the left arm and twist the fractionally to the right, as if inviting your friend through a door. As you pass, wheel half right and…halt, precisely two metres from your friend, regarding them kindly (but not over-familiarly) over the right shoulder. Now you’re perfectly placed, the path in your direction of travel uncluttered by acquaintances, and poised in a position of semi-readiness, like a greyhound in the traps slightly distracted by a passing burger. Perfect for a moment’s banter, your bearing clearly indicating this really isn’t going on for too long and with your escape route clear.
A few words (children, dogs, weather) and a carefully studied understatement on the subject of the current ‘strangeness’ (words like crisis, unprecedented and disaster should of course be strictly avoided) and then, with a fleeting farewell and a twist of the hips to port, you’re away. The Corona Sashay – social dis-ease and social distancing conquered in one elegant move!