New social etiquette for the new normal
Plans to lift lockdown rules and allow people to mingle in small groups call for tough calls on who's in and who's out.
Marie Le Conte is a freelance journalist based in London and the author of “Haven’t You Heard…? Gossip, power and how politics really works.”
LONDON — It’s finally happening; weeks after tens of millions of us were told to lock ourselves indoors, countries are starting to slowly relax their lockdowns and allow their citizens to socialize again.
We are not going back to normal, of course; the coronavirus remains an imminent threat, and in order to keep the dreaded rate of transmission below 1, rules on social gatherings must be stringent and precise.
While obviously understandable, these new rules are bound to be a socialite’s nightmare. In Hong Kong, when the government only allowed groups of up to four people to congregate, some ruthless party planners would invite four more to a gathering for safety’s sake, then drop the dead weight hours beforehand when it became clear no one was planning to cancel.
Things look likely to be worse in Europe. Belgium’s system will be a lot more complicated: Under the government’s new phase of the lockdown, people will be able to receive up to four others in their homes.
The clincher, however, is that it must always be the same four people, and in turn, these four other people can only host the four of you. In essence, what the Belgian state is asking its citizens to do is to form clusters of households, who only interact with one another.
Other countries, including the U.K., are rolling out similar plans, and while the exact guidelines might vary, it all boils down to a bit of a logistical nightmare that will require some delicate tightrope acts.
First off, it seems that the size of your household doesn’t matter. If you are a boisterous house-share of five adults, you will now be able to have a house party, if we define “house party” as a boozy gathering of more people than would fit around the average dinner table.
If you live alone, however, let’s hope your amuse-bouche skills are up to scratch, as a dinner is all you will be able to host for the foreseeable future. That is — if you’ve made the cut and have been selected as one of the core four.
Then there’s the sticky issue of who you should pick as your people. You may be reading this and thinking, “Why make this complicated? Should I not pick my closest friends or nearby relatives and be done with it?” But you’d be wrong. This is a dilemma that requires strategizing.
Consider this: If you have young children, you are probably exhausted (and perhaps wondering why caffeine drips aren’t yet a thing). What you need is free babysitting — from your parents, if they live close by and you have a good relationship with them, or from well-meaning friends.
If you go for the latter, the golden option would be to find people who love children but don’t have any of their own. After all, if what you dearly need is time alone, having to reciprocate and babysit another set of kids would defeat the point.
Making sure you have a group of adults would also be beneficial — as now you have arranged occasional childcare, you can use that free time to see another part of your cluster, and get sloshed (within reason, as you will eventually need to pick up your progeny).
A smart game plan might also involve tapping those people who are in possession of a garden early, as they are about to become prime cluster material. If you have spent the past however many weeks locked up indoors, now is your chance to snap up one of the lucky households that come with a private lawn.
Acquaintances with a large balcony will also do, although it really should be south-facing.
Now might also be the time to message any friends who are able cooks and ask if there is space in their cluster. Given this is the only socializing we will have for at least a short while, we may as well try to get through it by being well fed.
Equally, if you happen to live somewhere small and cramped and can only make the most basic of dishes, be sure to have a famously well stocked drinks cabinet and a glittering personality. No one wants to be the last kid to be picked in PE, again.
It’s not all about the amenities, though — who you get along with should also feature in your decision. Now is not the time to pick those people you’ve always wished you knew better; though optimism is always encouraged, you may discover by week three there is a reason why you liked someone the most when you saw them once every five weeks.
A safer option is to bet on known quantities — people you’ve known for a long time, and who you know you can bear for the weeks, maybe months, ahead.
The sweet spot, of course, are those people you don’t know everything about yet. Hanging out with your oldest friends may feel like a comfort blanket, but by the fifth dinner party you’ll be dying for someone to tell a story you haven’t heard 500 times already.
Oh, and the most important piece of advice of all: Whoever you decide to pick, do it quick — not only so you manage to get the cluster you want, but so that, when approached by friends you’d rather not see for another six weeks or so, you can politely explain that you would have loved it, really, but your choice has already been made.
Good luck to you, and see you on the other side.