face mask, corona, covid, culture, corona culture

The COVID19 lockdown rules: How we learn and adjust

7 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

The COVID19 lockdown crisis involves many of us rapidly learning and adjusting to entirely new rules, many of which used to be 'weird' until recently. 

The COVID19 lockdown

Since March 2020, people in large parts of the world have been living in lockdown. Concretely, they have been made subject to elaborate sets of rules that affect physical mobility, direct contact between people, personal protection and the protection of others. In many places, the lockdown rules can be summarized as: stay home and go out only whenever it's absolutely necessary. Avoid contact with people outside your immediate cohabitation bubble. And when such contact cannot be avoided, use the appropriate protective measures: shape and maintain 'social distance' from others (usually between 1,5 and 2 meters), wash hands very frequently, and wear a face mask. The aim of these rules is to prevent the corona virus from spreading through normal forms of social contact, fueling a COVID19 epidemic that has already affected millions of people worldwide and killed hundreds of thousands of them.

Rules of abnormal behavior

Most of these rules are deeply at odds with widely practiced and deeply ingrained sociocultural patterns of behavior in societies such as ours. Shaking hands, for instance, is such a default ritual gesture, such a self-evident cultural format and such a strong rule of politeness in greeting that many people now struggle finding an alternative for it. The same goes for hugging and kissing as features of greeting rituals: avoiding them demands a conscious effort and displaying the struggle to find alternatives generates a good amount of awkwardness.

The extent to which the lockdown rules deviate from what used to be normal can easiest be observed in the ways they affect the organization of public space.

But the extent to which the lockdown rules deviate from what used to be normal can easiest be observed in the ways they affect the organization of public space. Theaters and lecture halls are closed because they are built in such a way that, from the current COVID19 epidemic perspective, too many people would be seated too closely together, with unacceptable levels of risk of contagion. Changing that layout in order to make such places less dangerous raises immediate social, management and efficiency issues. A lecture hall built for 300 students would - with all measures put in place - now have a capacity of less than 100. And a 300-student lecture would, consequently, have to be transformed into three 100-student lectures. Managers of movie theaters, opera houses, concert halls or other facilities built for large public performances (think of sports arenas) face the same types of problems. 

As do those involved in organizing public and commercial mass transport. Crowded subway cars (and stations) are a nightmare for those trying to control the COVID19 epidemic, and so are crowded airplanes and airports. Crowded shopping streets, shops and supermarkets are equally spaces causing great concern for public health officials and experts. Which is why shopping streets are replete with spatial organizers and signage indicating (or demanding) the appropriate places for and distances between people, as we can see here:

COVID measures in shopping street

None of this was in place until a few weeks ago. Let alone that any of this would have been seen as 'normal'. It became normal in no time, though. Partly, of course, because of the fact that these new rules were quite emphatically imposed from above and effectively enforced by police and other authorities. But partly also because most of us learned these rules and adjusted to them, weird as they were. Let's look at an example.

Learning about face masks

For many people in Western Europe, wearing a medical face mask was never a normal element of public social appearance. People wearing it in public - apart from health care professionals - were very few and far between, and probably also suffering or recovering from a severe health issue. Since March 2020, however, medical face masks became the topic of incredibly intense public debates, first and mainly because shortages of such masks in many countries endangered the effectiveness of public health response to the COVID19 epidemic. There was a flood of public reports on health care professionals explaining the grave dangers they were exposed to due to the lack of appropriate face masks and other items of personal protective equipment. This shortage proved to be global; it drove governments around the world to despair and took some time to be sorted out.

None of this 'new normal' was in place until a few weeks ago. Let alone that any of this would have been seen as 'normal'. It became normal in no time, though.

We quickly learned that not every face mask is the same, that not all of them are useful when facing a COVID19 patient, that not all of them offer the same level of personal protection for ordinary people like us, that there were issues with quality (several millions of masks proved to be deficient and had to be returned to their manufacturers), and - as soon as all of us were invited to acquire our own face masks - that very good money could be made selling face masks.

In short, we learned a lot about medical face masks - a topic on which most of us had been fully ignorant, and for which few of us had ever shown any interest. We learned not only about the different types and qualities of masks, we also learned that wearing and manipulating such masks also involved some quite intricate and compelling rules. And we even learned how to manufacture our own DIY face masks. As usual, social media instantly became the major platform for learning such things, and YouTube tutorials - a genre we know quite well - attracted huge audiences. Consider this example.


All of this, of course, is instructional and didactic discourse work performed online; explicitly instructional work in addition: stuff explicitly designed for other people to learn the rules of wearing and manipulating face masks. And it is successful: hundreds of thousands of viewers watched this tutorial and - one hopes - learned from it.

In several ways, wearing a face mask used to be undesirable public social behavior, and so was 'social distancing'. 

As I said, those are weird rules, rules of things we were not just unfamiliar with until quite recently, but which were also way outside of what was 'normal' public social behavior for most of us. Even more, in several ways, wearing a face mask used to be undesirable public social behavior, and so was 'social distancing'. As Goffman and so many others emphasized, the presentation of one's self in public spaces depends on how we manage impressions of ourselves - how we aspire to be seen by others - and how we manage physical copresence, with things such as handshakes, a pat on the shoulder, a kiss, a hug or a whisper creating (and requiring) carefully choreographed moments of narrowing and transgressing the 'proper' physical space between people involved in interaction. Physical closeness has always been extraordinarily meaningful and sensitive in social interaction, a feature with a special moral dimension in addition; the rules of this crucial social-semiotic resource have now drastically changed.

Since mid-March 2020, I have repeatedly met the same people, but I have no idea of what they look like - I have never seen them without the face masks they are obliged to wear when they talk to me - and I have never come closer than 1,5 meter from any of them, I haven't shaken their hands when greeting them, or even spoken to them without the filter of our face masks affecting the sound of our voices. And all of this strange interactional behavior is seen and experienced as normal, expected, and - when performed adequately - a source of some pride or satisfaction because appropriate social behavior was displayed and ratified.

COVID19 as a learning episode

The processes I outlined here represent cultural change. In the most minimal form, the new rules for 'social distancing' and covering one's face represent an expansion of the repertoires of social behavioral scripts all of us possess. We have learned how to adjust our behavior now in circumstances such as the present ones, and whenever such circumstances reoccur, we will be able to draw upon these behavioral scripts and understand what they mean and how we can morally judge them as appropriate or transgressive. But it is not unthinkable that some of these new - weird - rules for appropriate social behavior replace the currently prevailing ones and change the default formats for appropriate public social behavior. 

An important part of cultural change proceeds fast, even when it affects deeply entrenched, hence 'cultural', modes of normal behavior.

The point here is to see that this cultural change took a mere handful of weeks. In these few weeks, people searched for information, selected sources for learning, learned and practiced new rules steering new 'normal' formats of social behavior. I wish to underscore this, because the idea of cultural change usually comes with suggestions of slowness, of durée and of gradual, phased processes of cultural aquisition and ratification.

There is no doubt that much of cultural change bears such features. But another part - the one we now experience as part of the COVID19 crisis - proceeds fast, even when it affects deeply entrenched, hence 'cultural', modes of normal behavior. Methodologically, this is a point we should remember after the COVID19 crisis, and we should remember that such processes of change involve complex and dense learning environments and learning processes we still need to understand in greater detail.