Gretchen Rubin is the bestselling author of several books, such as Outer Order, Inner Calm and The Happiness Project, about how to be happier, healthier, and more productive, and she hosts the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. For OprahMag.com, Gretchen is weighing in on how we can all find a little bit of calm, even during a pandemic. This week, she answers a reader question.
"Now that things are opening up a bit around the country, more of my friends are eager to get together. I’d like to start hosting again, but how can I do so in a way that isn’t rude, but still follows social distancing protocol?" – Maria from New York
This is such a common question these days! In a way, things were easier when we were in the strictest period of safer-at-home. The rules were very clear.
Now the rules are changing, and as research shows, any kind of decision fatigue is exhausting. What’s safe, what’s not safe, how can I show hospitality, how can I be a good guest, how do I respond when someone does something that makes me anxious?
People differ in how they interpret the rules and how comfortable they feel in different situations. This range of attitudes can cause tensions among families, neighbors, friends, co-workers—and even people just walking down the same aisle of a grocery store.
We’ve all heard the general rules for hosting a gathering: keep the group small, entertain outside, don’t share food, don’t handle the same bottles of condiments or beverages, stay six feet apart, wash hands frequently, no hugging, wear masks when needed, and so on.
I’ve developed some additional rules for myself.
As a host or guest, I respect the wishes of the person who wants the highest level of rule-observation. People may not want to explain why they’re in a high-risk group, or why they’re particularly anxious. The polite thing is to make that person feel comfortable—and not self-conscious—by readily observing the standard that works for them, without making a fuss. Maybe I think it’s safe to serve food off the grill, but you’d rather bring your own food. Terrific!
Beforehand, I let my guests know what rules we’ll be following—and I follow through. A friend went to a gathering at the home of a friend who’d assured her, “We’ll be socially distanced, of course.” My friend was taken aback when she arrived and was immediately told, “Now we’ll all go on a tour of the house!” and was seated at a dinner table without distancing. As a person with health issues, she felt very anxious—but she also didn’t want to be the killjoy who kept saying, “Shouldn’t we stay outside?” “Shouldn’t we all sit further apart from each other?”
One easy way to entertain, I’ve found, is to meet another couple or two for a glass of a beverage of choice, rather than get together for a meal. We get the fun of seeing each other, but avoid the hassle and worries that come with serving a meal and ensuring that people aren’t touching the same ketchup bottle or platter. When a visit is short, guests are less likely to head inside to use the bathroom. I also find that even when everyone starts out very conscientiously, as time passes, we all start to drift closer and closer, as old habits reassert themselves.
It’s helpful when a gathering is set up to encourage social distancing—when chairs have been removed from around the table, or when lawn chairs have been pre-spaced at a six-foot distance. I went to a friend’s house where she’d cleverly set up chairs around a large, low table set with votive candles. She and her husband sat on one side, my husband and I sat on the other side. Without the table, it would’ve seemed strange to be sitting so far apart, but she’d figured out a way for us to sit at the proper distance in a way that felt completely natural.
The fact is, it’s hard to follow the rules for socializing, because they feel unnatural and unfriendly. You’re my friend! I want to give you a hug, I want to sit down right next to you for a quiet conversation, I want to pass you a plate of deviled eggs.
We’re all looking forward to the day when that kind of gathering is possible again.
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