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  • Helen Hawkes

The new social codes

From gender diversity to personal distancing, how we relate to others has changed dramatically. Words Helen Hawkes

Social interaction is now in post-pandemic mode, and the rules are still a grey area for many. Meanwhile, issues such as #MeToo, gender diversity and even a global trend away from the consumption of foods that negatively impact the environment are entering everyday consciousness and influencing human interaction. As a result we are left to grapple alone with conundrums such as to wear a mask or not wear a mask, how to address a non-binary colleague (or come out as such ourselves) and even whether it is de rigueur to offer a vegan option to accompany the Wagyu beef.

Says Professor Andrew Dawson, chair of social anthropology at the University of Melbourne: “We are in an almost unprecedented moment, engendered by crises and transformations such as the pandemic and new social movements, of profound uncertainty regarding what constitutes appropriate manners.”

Agrees Dr Valeria Sinkeviciute of the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Queensland, whose research interests include (im)politeness: “Everything is changing quite fast and we don’t have some kind of guide to how to behave.”

Clearly, though, we do need some guidance, if only to avoid denuding our social circle.


Remember when strangers didn’t ask invasive questions about your little cough, or where you stood on the merits of the booster? Many of us long for the privacy that surrounded our most personal decisions and, indeed, would rather keep our pandemic sentiments to ourselves. Says Ana Retallack, the director of Melbourne’s The Standard Companion, a member of the Leading Protocol & Etiquette Schools of the World: “Vaccination, for example, is a personal thing, but the no-go areas of small talk — traditionally religion and politics — seem to have reduced massively.

“I think social media has really exacerbated that,” Retallack continues. “People are so free and easy with their opinions online and can carry that into everyday life.” If you’d rather avoid any unpleasantness, when conversation turns to Covid-19, take the conversation somewhere else. “It’s not necessary to be confrontational, even with people who can’t read the room,” says Retallack.

In other spaces, where group dynamics are in force, it may simply be a matter of waiting and watching to see what others do. Peter Robertson, executive chef at Flying Fish in Sydney, says that, on paper, the restaurant’s service is back to pre-Covid conditions, with no real social distancing restrictions in place. “However, we have noticed that guest interactions continue to be somewhat distanced,” he says. “Greetings, in particular, can be awkward, with a mix of fist bumps, handshakes, hugs and kisses, and every combination of these given between groups of diners.”

A Monash University study titled “Civility as Politeness During Covid-19” also found that what under normal circumstances used to be considered polite, such as handing over a menu, passing the salt or exchanging pleasantries with a neighbouring table, may no longer be viewed as such. Communal tables are also on the decline, researchers note, something that applies even in first-class lounges. A Qantas spokesperson confirms the airline has replaced self-serve buffets with hosted food and beverage services.

While we will have to decide for ourselves whether to share condiments, Retallack says greeting etiquette is now clear-cut. “I wait a second before offering my hand,” she says. “But you can get on the front foot and ask what the other person feels comfortable with.” As for hugs and kisses, they are “never appropriate” in a corporate setting.


That goes double for other forms of touching. Post-#MeToo, what was acceptable, or at least tolerated, a generation ago is certainly not OK now. “Once upon a time there were public and usually patriarchally defined standards of what constituted the limits of appropriate sexual behaviour,” says Dawson. “These are dissolving. Nowadays, appropriateness is governed more by the idea that individual feelings of personal offence, rather than some sense of ‘reasonable human being’, are what matters — ‘If it made me feel bad it must be wrong’.”

"Once, there were public and usually patriarchally defined standards of what constituted the limits of appropriate sexual behaviour. These are dissolving." - Andrea Dawson

So what about when sexual politics comes right to you in the form of a comment or behaviour? Retallack is no-nonsense: “I’d say, ‘I’d prefer that you didn’t touch me’ and move on quickly, unless they are not getting it.” Sometimes a little education may be needed, but she cautions against labelling a collective group sexist. It’s about respecting both, or make that all, genders.

And here we stumble into the very real world of gender diversity, in all its non-binary, cisgender and pangender variations. Says Sinkeviciute: “We are navigating through new membership categories in which there are more groups and, every time you open your mouth, you are choosing what to say about that.”

While many people have used “she/her” and “he/him” on email sign-offs or even their LinkedIn page for some time, we now have an opportunity to officially use it and be very inclusive. Says Retallack: “I don’t think anyone is obliged to do it, but it might save people having to ask.” She points out that, “In business, if you get as much information as possible and a feel for a person, you have a much better chance of connecting.”


The same approach is the secret to a successful dinner party or corporate lunch. With many more people having food sensitivities and cultural and environmental food preferences, communication is key, says Robertson. “If you’re cooking for people for the first time it’s totally fine to ask if there’s something they don’t eat and just as important to follow up,” he says. “For example, if someone is avoiding gluten then a great follow-up is to ask if they are coeliac or just trying to reduce gluten in their diet.

“We are navigating through new membership categories in which there are more groups and, every time you open your mouth, you are choosing what to say about that.” - Valeria Sinkeviciute

“I have personally noticed that while the amount of true allergies or cultural sensitivities has remained reasonably constant, we are seeing a lot more variation in preference and diet trends,” he adds. That includes, but is by no means limited to, vegans, climatarians, vegetarians, old-fashioned omnivores, people who eat only organic foods or grass-fed meat and those avoiding gluten, sugar, dairy or nightshades. Good luck.


With the current rate of social change, some might get nostalgic for the days when human interaction seemed simpler. But nostalgia is for dinosaurs, says Dawson. “If a man restrains himself from patting a woman on the bottom because, unlike in the Dark Ages, he is worried that she may take offence and is worried that that offence may count for something, all well and good. Likewise, if, as is now commonplace in places like Japan, people wear masks out of respect for other people’s fears of contagion, all well and good.

“Present-day anxieties we might feel about our relationships with others and how to behave in their presence are stimuli for us to become more respectful and socially mindful citizens,” he adds.

Less than a decade ago, we hadn’t lived through lockdowns, hadn’t been directly terrorised by the reality of climate change and, sadly, still considered sexual harassment just another day at the office. Retallack reassures us that the only real secret to saying or doing the right thing is making sure the other person feels respected. “Even in business you can exercise empathy,” she reminds us, “and put human connection first.”

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 98 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “The new social codes”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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