If I pass you on a trail and veer off to the side while turning my face away, please don’t think I’m rude. If I dodge through the grocery store aisles as if I’m deliberately trying to avoid you, please don’t take it personally. If I give you a stiff arm instead of a handshake, please understand. If I see you coming with your adorable child who just wants to give me a hug and I slink away into the shadows like a second-rate spy, please don’t be offended. I’m not trying to be rude. I’m just trying to practice social distancing.
Like so many other aspects of our daily lives in this pandemic, everyday politeness has been turned upside down. Nowadays, it’s polite to be rude. I might go so far as to say, “Rude is the new polite.” Holding people at a distance and avoiding close contact is now the epitome of good manners. Six feet is the magic number. We must stay six feet away from one another in order to avoid finding ourselves six feet under. I used to hear stories about kids whose parents gave them a clove of garlic to wear around their necks to ward off germs. I always thought that made a lot of sense. While garlic might not have any special germ-repelling qualities, it certainly has a prodigious odor. The smell of the garlic would keep people at bay, thus keeping their germs away as well. Can you smell garlic from six feet away, I wonder? Can you smell it through a face mask? Might be worth a try.
The normal rules of politeness are hard to adapt to the Zoom experience as well, especially if one is a shy person. People of a certain age will remember “A Prairie Home Companion,” that radio show hosted by Garrison Keillor which featured the News from Lake Wobegon with its memorable sponsor, Powdermilk Biscuits. If you recall, Powdermilk Biscuits “give shy persons the strength they need to get up and do what needs to be done.” All you extroverts, take note — if you see your colleagues munching away on Zoom, they might be seeking strength from some Powdermilk Biscuits in order to get through the intimidating experience of that Zoom call.
Why is a Zoom meeting so much more stressful than an in-person gathering? As a self-described shy person, I can offer a few insights, after I take a few fortifying bites of biscuit.
In an in-person meeting, the shy person has a number of strategies to employ. For starters, she can sit in the back, out of sight of the facilitator. But on Zoom, there is no back. Turning off one’s camera is the only option for anonymity. Better watch out, though. If you fail to identify yourself in a Zoom meeting, you might get called out. “Phone number 867-5309, please identify yourself, we don’t know who you are.” That happened to me. In a public meeting that attracted fewer than five participants. Not a comfortable moment for someone who prefers to remain inconspicuous. They should have just advertised it as open-mic night and been done with it.
In an in-person meeting, sometimes participants will be asked to break out into small discussion groups. The shy person can then occupy herself with taking exhaustive notes or doodling on her legal pad—anything to ensure that eye contact is impossible, thus allowing (or forcing, as the case may be) another participant to take the lead in the small group discussion. Breakout rooms on Zoom don’t work that way. The Hollywood Squares grid of faces leaves no place to hide. The shy person feels exposed, perhaps even pressured into speaking out into the lengthening silence. She eyes the “Leave meeting” button. Would they notice? There’s no such thing as sneaking out of a Zoom meeting—she would simply disappear as if she never existed. Maybe her colleagues would conclude that there was an internet blip at her house and she got thrown out of the meeting through no fault of her own. By this point, any chance of productive discussion is gone, and the best the shy person can hope for is the appearance of the ticking clock announcing fifty more seconds until the breakout session ends.
Okay, I’m stressed out just thinking about it. I might have to take a soothing walk in the woods to recover. If I see you out walking too, and actively evade you, remember that I’m doing it out of politeness. Please don’t think I’m rude.
• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.