How to Signal Your Social Distancing Comfort Zone

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a hugger. He proved that after an interview with Fox reporter Erin Andrews in December. After a socially-distanced interview, the two, who are friends, came in for a maskless hug while the cameras were still rolling. Predictably, Twitter blew up.

If you’re a hugger, times are rough right now. We’ve all changed our social habits because of the global pandemic – perhaps for good. I met with a young French woman in 2020, just at the beginning of the pandemic, who said she found the traditional French greeting of a kiss on both cheeks (“la bise”) “kind of gross.”

I’ve written about social distancing in the past, way before it was a life or death matter. Humans have always had to rely on subtle body language cues to determine how close to stand to someone at a business or social event. But things have changed, and people who used to be comfortable with close proximity might have changed their minds. This wasn’t a problem when most workers connected through screens, but a return to the office has brought the issue back to prominence.

Some companies have found a solution, according to a New York Times article: color coding. Writer Emma Goldberg says, “Employers who want workers to come back to their desks are trying to accommodate different degrees of Covid risk tolerance. One approach they’ve landed on is offering people accessories — wristbands or pins — that signal their preferences for social distancing, masking and shaking hands.”

Red indicates the person wants to maintain social distance. Yellow indicates that a fist bump is OK; arm’s length socializing is acceptable. Green says, “bring it – I’m good for a hug if you are.” Some companies use the wristbands to indicate testing status in industries that require frequent testing.

There’s real value in not having to articulate what you’re feeling. Although we’re two years into the COVID crisis, some of the commonsense precautions that we’ve been taking still feel awkward. I remember the first business meeting I had in March 2020 when I backed away from a handshake. I felt silly saying “I’ve stopped shaking hands for a while”, even if everyone understood why. It’s now common to do things that would have been unspeakably rude a few years ago. Like crossing over to the far side of the sidewalk or stepping off as someone approaches.

It’s confusing out there right now. My husband and I are fully vaccinated and boosted, but we’ve started wearing masks again in places where we can’t socially distance. The other day, as we approached a mobile phone store, we saw a sign that read “Masks are required for people who are not fully vaccinated.” We were, but we wore masks anyway to speak to the salesman. Afterwards I wondered if he might be judging us for not being vaccinated. But he was masked as well – most retailers here in Florida have gone back to requiring masks for all employees, whether they are vaccinated or not. It’s confusing.

The nice thing about wrist bands or badges is that you can change your preference from week to week without having to explain. People will get in the habit of glancing at wrist bands or badges the way they look at nametags. In fact, I predict that when business meetings get back to normal, if they ever do, that name tags will be color-coded as well.

For years, socially anxious people and others who just needed space had to explain themselves over and over and hated the awkwardness it brought to every encounter. As my brother explained, “I’m an introvert; I’ve been practicing for social distancing all my life. Finally, the world is catching up to me.”

Color coding may be a solution that stays around long after we get back to whatever the new normal is. It’s subtle, flexible, and solves a problem that existed before COVID did. Win / win.

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