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Will we ever blow out birthday candles again? 4 rituals the pandemic changed

A doctor and an etiquette expert weigh in on how social norms — from handshakes to blowing out birthday candles — have been affected by the pandemic.
Could these pre-pandemic rituals go the way of the dodo? Min Heo / For TODAY
/ Source: TMRW

The pandemic has certainly put a spotlight on germs and how they spread. But while we’re being extra cautious right now, will our new habits permanently shift how we greet people and celebrate for years to come?

“All our basic human instincts and interactions have basically been changed by this pandemic,” said Dr. Vivek Cherian, MD, an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. “My hope is that as a society we’ll be able to return to fully embracing our previous social traditions, but it’ll need a steady and consistent decrease in Covid-19 cases (to make that happen).”

While he predicts that most activities will one day go back to "normal," he did mention a caveat: some people won't ever feel comfortable with certain rituals returning — even after the pandemic eases. “Ultimately, what I feel that’s going to come from our social traditions will largely be based on the level of confidence that particular individuals feel.”

Etiquette expert Elaine Swann agreed. “For individuals who are extra cautious, I believe they will adapt to new behaviors, and it will require those who interact with them to adjust to new behaviors,” she told TMRW. “For the most part, I think many people will go back, but we’ll see little pockets here and there.”

Right now, Cherian said we should still be cautious about germs, especially with the Delta variant since experts are still gathering data out about it. While the risk of getting Covid-19 is much less likely if you’re fully vaccinated, it’s better to be safe than sorry, he said.

Below, see four social norms that have been affected by the pandemic and how experts think we'll navigate them in the future.

1. Handshakes

Handshakes seemed to be one of the first rituals to change once the pandemic hit.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

“Essentially in this country, shaking hands is a social norm, so it’s going to be extremely challenging to break that norm,” Cherian said. “I want to get back to the point where I can shake hands with my friends and strangers, but I would hold off hand shaking right now.”

If someone goes in for a handshake and you’re not comfortable with it, Swann suggests using your body language to convey that message. For example, you could keep your hands clasped together in front of you or nod your head and keep your hands to yourself.

“It will be awkward for just a moment, but the key is to continue to interact with that individual whatever your purpose is and don’t put so much attention on the fact that you’re not shaking their hand,” she said.

2. Hugs with acquaintances

Hugs with acquaintances
“You’re essentially almost breathing on top of each other (when you hug)," the doctor explained.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Hugging is high risk (right now) because you’re in close proximity,” Cherian explained. “You’re essentially almost breathing on top of each other even for a short period of time.” He did note, however, that the risk tolerance is much different if both people are vaccinated.

If you don’t know if someone is vaccinated or don’t feel comfortable embracing in a hug, Swann suggests putting both hands up to sort of block them, then just be open and honest saying, “I’m not hugging just yet, but I’m so happy to see you!”

“Push past that awkward moment, pivot and change the subject,” she added.

3. Blowing out birthday candles

Blowing out birthday candles
Will people use a personal-sized cupcake to blow out candles instead?TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Cherian said that in pre-pandemic times, blowing out birthday candles on a cake was pretty low risk for spreading illnesses, but right now, he wouldn’t do it.

And Swann thinks this is one of those traditions that will change even after the pandemic is over. She predicts more people will choose to either extinguish the candles by waving them out with their hand or prepare a personal-sized cupcake with a candle to blow out safely while guests are served another cake. “That will become a norm in more circles,” she said.

4. Tasting a friend’s food or drink

Tasting a friend's food or drink
There are ways to share food without using the same cup or utensils.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Remember those pre-pandemic days where you could taste a friend’s dessert or cocktail at a restaurant and not have to worry? “I do believe that people are going to be very cautious when it comes to eating or drinking after someone, even after the pandemic eases,” Swann said. “That’s something we’ll probably see a pull back on.”

Her advice to navigate around a friend wanting to taste test your food or drink is to allow it — but with their own glass or utensils. “If someone says they want to try (your drink), say, ‘How about I give you your own glass, and we’ll keep ourselves safe that way.’”