The Slough of Despond*

*Pronounce it however you want. English is weird.

Here in the US it’s been just over 7 months since we shut down to attempt to “flatten the curve” of covid-19 cases and not overwhelm our medical capabilities. Schools became online-only, office work became WFH (Work From Home), service industries became stressed. Almost everyone changed their behavior patterns overnight, and because of that, the supply of goods was not well suited to what people needed or wanted. For many people it was like living in a totally different country (although you could still understand the language).

Seven-ish months in and the supply bullwhip has mostly abated. You can get toilet paper at the grocery store, and everyone’s selling masks. While most schools are still online only, many businesses that rely on in-person custom have re-opened, with social distancing changes, plexiglass barriers, and mask requirements. I know people who are out and about all the time, and I know people who haven’t left the house or touched another human since March. I know far too many people who have lost someone to covid-19.

I also know that this is the hardest time for adapting to a “new normal.”

Over a lifetime of moving to a new country every two or three years, I’ve learned to expect and deal with the “Six Month Wall.” Maybe it’s a common human thing, or maybe it’s something unique to modern humans with our fast travel and hyper-connectedness, but we seem to be able to endure a dramatically new situation, and even appreciate it, for about six months. And then we are DONE and we want to go home. 

There’s no going home from this. 

It’s time to accept that this is where we live and mindfully adopt new habits.

Pace layers by Stewart Brand and Brian Eno of the Long Now Foundation. Higher levels change faster.

Globally we have at least another year of lockdown and quarantine, possibly years more before some combination of vaccine and viral mutation reduces covid-19 from a pandemic-level threat to something more like the annual flu. The “new normal” isn’t on the same timescale as the latest fad in toys, questionable fashion choices, celebrity couples, or even smartphone releases. We all live in a different country now, and we will be dressing and acting like the natives do for years to come. Masks and hand-washing need to be as widely practiced as pants and chewing with our mouths closed.

We all live in a different country now, and we will be dressing and acting like the natives do for years to come

But of course quarantine fatigue is real. Even in online simulations, people stop protecting themselves and their communities from disease. Frederick Chen saw this in a 45-day sim he ran in 2013, and identified is called ‘self-protection fatigue,’ and it happens because as the prevalence of a disease drops, people get more brazen – they start going out again and stop protecting themselves before the disease has been eradicated. “You implement these social-distancing measures and if they’re working nothing bad happen and people take their foot off the gas and that’s when bad things can happen, “ he says.

When you aren’t in a sim there may be good reasons other than boredom or selfishness to stop quarantining. I’m personally very concerned about the generation of children who aren’t getting healthy social interaction; mental and emotional health are as important as physical health. There’s also the economy; despite what some politicians would have you believe, public health and the economy are two sides of the same coin. If people can’t work or afford needs like food, shelter, and medicine, it affects public health, which in turn affects the ability of people to create value or care for themselves and for loved ones.

This is why the full adage is “flatten the curve and raise the line.” In order to deal with an epidemic so that negative feedback loops with other systems aren’t established, a zone (such as a small nation or affected region of a large nation) should quarantine fully and thoroughly, while at the same time the governing bodies and commercial elements should increase health care capacity by building hospitals and care centers, converting locations into treatment centers, training the least at-risk to be care providers, spin up production of PPE, and go all in on mitigation. Some locations did this and were able to come out of quarantine, returning to controlled interaction (wear a mask! wash your hands!) while other locations only sort of quarantined and relegated the “raise the line” bits to uncoordinated efforts by random businesses and researchers, thus prolonging the negative system effects on the economy and mental health indefinitely. Those of us in this situation need to change our mindset from sprint to marathon.

Either way, you still have a responsibility to observe the new cultural norms that are in place to reduce the spread of disease. In much the same way you don’t eat uncooked pork (or pork at all), you don’t defecate upstream of where you draw your water, and you don’t let garbage rot in your home, you also wear a mask and wash your hands regularly.

It would be nice if people would keep up with all the science, as we probably don’t need masks in some outdoor situations, and most of us can stop with the hand sanitizer and the wipes. There’s no evidence that the disease transmits via surfaces, unless the surface has a huge viral load, you get a lot of it on your hands, and then you put your hands in your mouth. This should affect our behavior and help us get back to reducing waste and having an economy…if people wash their hands.

But it’s hard to change habits like wiping down surfaces once they’ve become entrenched.

I’ve picked up many habits from living in other cultures. Some are behaviors I adopted for only as long as I was in that place, but some have become fully part of my and my family’s life. Others I could never really adopt no matter how hard I tried. For instance, when I lived in Romania it was still a thing for older men to literally kiss a woman’s hand when they met her – and it always caught me by surprise.

Here are some of the other behaviors I’ve adopted because they were right for the place and time; most of them are the equivalent of you wearing a mask and washing your hands, so I believe you can adopt that behavior too!

Greetings

  • Hugging people as greeting or farewell often with air kiss (one side): this one stuck for years until one of my close friends snapped at me “We’re AMERICAN here and like our personal space!”
  • Light hug with two-cheek kiss: I learned who expected this and did it, but only with them
  • Three kisses, left-right-left: a constant surprise. I think this is French?
  • A light hug followed by a full-on lip kiss: always initiated by a dude, and Dude, Ima remember you in case I need someone to dump a drink on later.
  • Handshake: Americans, up until Covid. 
  • Bow: I did jiujitsu for years (Japanese and I’m still cranky that I have to define that) so I knew the basics of bowing mentally and physically, but it just can’t be done with anyone outside a bowing culture (or a dojo).
  • Head jerked sharply backwards a tiny amount while looking at the person and saying something like “Hola Ese” or “Que pas?”: How I greeted people much of my teen years, because New Mexico. When I got to California I was informed that “ese” is male-to-male.
  • 2020: The Covid elbow bump is still not a habit for anyone.

Visiting

  • We joined the Foreign Service about the same time we had to start functioning as adults, at age 23, so both contributed to me never arriving at someone’s house empty-handed. In my hometown where visits were to long-time friends or family it never occurred to me, but now I literally can’t go somewhere without taking something, even to a close friend’s.
  • Hostess gifts: Within European or European-adjacent cultures, I bring the hostess of the party or event a small gift (unless it’s an embassy party, like July 4th). If there’s just a host, or the host’s spouse is male, I bring one also.
  • When we served in Malaysia, we got in the habit of removing our shoes before entering someone else’s home, and people removed their shoes at our door. Shoes were left outside the door. I’ve never stopped that, but in the States, shoes are left just inside the door. There are few homes where the person doesn’t expect shoes to be removed and doesn’t have a place for it and it weirds me out.

Out in Public

I quickly learned to adjust my body language in Asia to be less imposing. I stopped making direct eye contact and didn’t show my teeth. I didn’t even realize I was doing this until I returned to the States and kept feeling like random people (waitresses, retail clerks) were trying to start shit with me or be super-aggressive. I quickly realized I was reading their social cues wrong.

I started practicing to only use my right hand for handing or receiving things, especially food or money. That became second nature, to the point that going through a drive-thru in the US was really difficult as I tried to contort to pay and take the food only with my right hand. Maybe all Muslim/squat toilet countries should drive on the left.

Switching which side of the road to drive on and switching back was never a big deal for me. Driving a right-side drive car hurt my head – shifting with my left hand was weird and I always ALWAYS turned the wipers on when I meant to use my turn signal.

I’ve only ever had racial epithets yelled at me in Malaysia (and as a kid in the US), which is a benefit of being white I suppose. I once went to a football (soccer) game with a Black friend in Romania and the entire stadium chanted “NIGGER” at us as we walked to our seats. Aside from that I’ve felt safer walking around most countries than I do in the US. My self-defense and situational awareness habits from the US were necessary in Romania, where it was common for men to say things or grab me on the street, so those habits never change.

At some point, either in Malaysia or Yemen, I learned to not point but to indicate with a closed hand using my thumb and knuckles, and I still do that.

Dinner starts at 8:00 pm or later and I will never get used to how fast American restaurants try to get you out the door.

Biology

Two words: squat toilets. I have used them around the globe and have never gotten used to them. In some countries I learned to carry my own toilet paper the way I carry a wallet (or a mask, now).


What habits have you picked up from outside your own culture? Which ones became permanent? Are you used to wearing a mask everywhere now?

1 Comment

  1. Howdy, Raq:
    I’ve also spent a lot of time overseas… 6 years in the Far East, 3.5 in Turkey and the rest (~16 years) in UK/Europe (thanks, USAF!).
    I’ve semi-adopted the fist-bump. It seemed like a ridiculous affectation to me a few years ago, but now it seems like an acceptable compromise between the old handshake and the elbow-bump that no-one seems to actually do. The main problem is that a few guys (It’s.Always.Guys) don’t seem to understand that moving a fist doesn’t mean “punch”. A civilized greeting shouldn’t result in sore knuckles.
    I loved driving in the UK and Japan. After a brief acclimation/re-acclimation period (usualy dealing with intersections/roundabouts), I always enjoyed right-hand drive driving. I’m very right-handed, so I liked keeping my dominant hand on the wheel at all times and letting my left do the shifting, etc. Going back to ‘normal’ after leaving was always the scariest part.
    While in Asia, I always approached squat toilets with a bit of apprehension. It just seemed like the ‘gap’ provided less privacy (not that anyone was watching), and maybe also a requirement for accuracy that I wasn’t used to. I usually walked away afterwards appreciating the lack of contact with any surfaces, however.
    I don’t know that I’ve adopted the actual habits of any of the places I’ve lived as part of my day-to-day life. But I’ve very consciously tried to maintain the mindset of being a considerate guest. Every place that I’ve been, I’ve found that being polite, trying to learn the language and the customs, and not trying to push my Americanisms on my hosts has alway been met with friendly hospitality. Hopefully that’s made me a bit less pushy in real life.
    I’m pretty much used to wearing a mask everywhere now. But it still feels very wrong to be walking up to my bank with a mask on. I’m not sure how long it will take for that to subside.

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