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Being a Social Gentleman When It’s Okay to Be Social Again

By Ben Nye (Arkansas)

If 2020 has brought us anything, it has brought us a world that is lived behind screens. The rise of screen time has been big news for a while—a trend worsened by COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders. More screen time only heightens the importance of increasingly rare in-person social events in building personal and professional relationships.

Thus, it’s understandable if you’re feeling a little out of practice in engaging with others in-person. If that’s you, then keep this article in mind when you finally get out and attend an in-person social event.*

*Obviously, stay within your state and local guidelines regarding event size, social distancing and mask-wearing.

Take Your Cues from Others for Physical Greetings

The handshake is out thanks to COVID-19, at least if Wired and Time are to be believed. With provocative titles like The Coronavirus Killed the Handshake and the Hug, What Will Replace Them?, and The Coronavirus Could Put an End to Handshakes, one wonders what will become of the world’s most famous greeting.

With apologies to Time and Wired, rumors of the handshake’s death have been greatly exaggerated. An August article in the New York Times reported that etiquette professionals believe the handshake will return, if perhaps after an extended delay.

In the meantime, what should we do in business and social situations, especially when we’re used to greeting others with a handshake? Should you fist bump? Elbow bump? Nod?

Have no fear: just read the room. Remember that your goal should be to put others at ease in social situations, even in these uncertain times. With that standard in mind, just take cues from others around you. If you are offered a fist bump, return it. An elbow bump? Do the same.

No one will remember, or care, if you had an awkward fist bump/elbow mix-up if you have an enjoyable and memorable conversation. Speaking of which:

Make a Friend

If you are anything like me, you’ve probably found that Fraternity recruitment, networking, or other social events can be crowded with complete strangers. It can be intimidating to arrive and find yourself knowing very few, if any, people at an event.

In these situations, it can be difficult to know how to approach others. Should you try to join a “conversation circle” already in progress? How about starting your own?

Maybe it’s best to start small. Try getting to know one other person and having a longer, get-to-know-you conversation. After you’ve introduced yourself and exchanged pleasantries, try to ask open-ended questions that call for deeper reflection. Instead of stopping at the perennial “what do you do?” or “what was your major?” questions, follow up with “what do you like best about your current job?” or “what drew you to that field?” Try to get to know the other person’s story and then draw something out that is unique about them.

You’ve undoubtedly been told you should remember people’s names. (I’ve probably forgotten many more names than I could ever remember) One way to remember other people’s names is to truly get to know them. Make a friend.

This skill—starting and maintaining conversations—may prove all the more useful, especially as large social gatherings will probably stay limited for the foreseeable future.

Don’t Assume Others’ Politics

By now, we have (hopefully) passed an especially fraught election season. It seems like everyone has a political opinion, and especially online, people share theirs with impunity.

While I’ve found that most social and professional gatherings are refreshingly free of charged political discussions, you should still steer clear of one key mistake: assuming you know the politics of others.

If you’re hitting it off in conversation, you can subconsciously assume that others will agree with you about everything. Unless you’re at a political fundraiser, that’s probably not true—even then, your new acquaintance or colleague still probably won’t agree with you about everything.

Stay prudent and avoid politically loaded jokes and side comments, assuming that others will share your views. I’m not saying there is never a time to discuss politics. Rather, my point is that assuming political agreement when it isn’t warranted could lead to a costly slip or gaff. Don’t ruin a favorable impression by assuming politics.

Follow Up with New Contacts

If you’ve made a new friend or acquaintance at a social event or networking luncheon, follow up with an email, message, or phone call. If anything, just let the person know that you enjoyed talking and meeting them. It will make you memorable and could be the beginning of a years-long friendship.

Ben Nye is an employment law attorney with Carr Allison in Birmingham, Alabama. Ben served on the General Fraternity staff team from 2011-2015, first as a Leadership Consultant and then as Associate Director of Communications.

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