Changes in Social Norms in Response to COVID-19

My Observations From A Recent 11-Day 8-City Trip

The coronavirus officially became a worldwide pandemic yesterday, and I just returned from an 11-day trip that took me to Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, Huntington Beach, San Francisco, Napa Valley, Palm Springs, Denver again, and finally, back to Aspen.  My trip started with training for incoming Presidents from Rotary Clubs in the mountain states, then a Young Presidents Organization (YPO) event that was mostly canceled, an art tour in the San Francisco Bay Area, a Pro-Am tennis tournament that preceded the Indian Wells BNP Paribas Open (also canceled) and finally, a meeting at the Denver airport. I spent time with a lot of folks and here’s what I observed:

  • As the trip went on, it got increasingly strange to be in places where there are generally lots of travelers, such as the airports and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  There was palpable unease and much smaller crowds.
  • There doesn’t yet seem to be a clear winner for “handshake replacement.”  We did the elbow tap, fist bump, head nod, head bow, namaste, toe touch, and the classic handshake.  If I had to call a winner, I’d say the elbow tap was most common, but I still received a lot of handshakes.  Cheek kisses were not on the menu (even though I think they would have been common at one of the events had it been a year ago) and I have a feeling that’s not going to change anytime soon.
  • My take on the greeting? If you have a strong preference, just initiate with that.  Offer your elbow, fist, a head bow, or folded hands, and you’re almost certain to get reciprocation in kind. 
  • Truth be told, it was nice to have more intentional greetings with the people I was meeting.  We had to pay enough attention to each other to negotiate a protocol.
  • The biggest change in norms I witnessed was in hand-washing. I still have not seen anyone use the restroom without washing their hands.  Oftentimes, guys even made a performance of their thoroughness. Three cheers to this new hand-washing norm and may it become permanent.
  • I also did not see anyone who was obviously sick in public – coughing, sneezing repeatedly, or looking like death-warmed-over.  Again, this has been public health advice for as long as I can remember and I hope that it becomes a permanent new norm – if you’re sick, please stay home. To that end, I found this article from The Atlantic to be quite an interesting read that infers that this virus has a long way to go before dying down.
  • The last thing I witnessed was people using something other than their hands – clothes, napkins, etc. – to open doors.  Also, people being very good about holding doors for others who were behind them. In general, I saw a lot of kindness and thoughtfulness that I really hope survives Covid-19.

    I’d love to hear your take. How are you coping in this brave new world? Shoot me an email at or find me on Instagram at @kellykleeinsurance or @jonkelly if you feel like discussing.
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