While working in Argentina I was once asked by some locals over lunch what I had most noticed about Argentines and their behaviours to each other. It was a good humoured encounter and I responded by saying that I had never really adjusted to the frequency of kissing as a form of greeting among Argentines, especially when between men.
My fellow diners laughed with surprise; but I explained light-heartedly that for an Englishman of a certain generation kissing among adults other than between close relatives, lovers or other intimates, had until quite recently been very rare. My lunchtime conversation in Buenos Aires came back to me during an exchange last week with some friends (over Zoom of course!) about the impact of “social distancing” during the current crisis.
At least for older generations, I suspect social distancing is something of a reversion to type. For those of us for whom even a handshake was something done only in formal encounters, to be required to keep six feet away from other people is almost to act as we were brought up. For younger generations, including my own children’s, not to kiss and not to hug seems deeply alien and they are doubtless finding social distancing both odd and unwelcome.
But there is a wider and not frivolous question which might come to concern us all. Having been required to social distance for many weeks, perhaps even months, will we ever get back to hugging and kissing as normal again? Will this terrible virus alter our social manners in ways unwelcome and not readily repairable? For how long will we be nervous in our social encounters except among those who are our closest and dearest?
This is not so small a matter as we might initially care to think. For insofar as we remain physically distant from each other in the workplace (remember such places?) or when socialising, will we unintentionally affect our experience or sense of community and trust? Given that we are told now that there is such a thing as society, the bonds that bind us together in that society are ones sprung from interest in others and in their welfare as much as from a narrow set of self-interests.
Will there be a risk as we move out of isolation from each other that warmth of interaction will be just a bit harder to muster than it had been before and our society just a little more, as it were, “northern” than “southern” European? Will the tactile encounters encouraged in us in part by our experience over many years not of the Mediterranean diet but of Mediterranean habits (and of course Argentina has much of the Mediterranean in its genes), freeze a little with societal losses we cannot yet calculate?
We must all hope not; but it may well require an effort of the will to find our way back to informality and warmth of interaction. But not to do so would risk this virus leaving another unwelcome legacy.