Why do societies and groups of people develop rituals? The answer is to ‘encode’ rights and obligations in particular social relationships, and also to acquire interactional patterns through which our relationships are reinforced or altered. Take greeting as an example. In certain relationships we are supposed to ritually greet one another, and in some relationships this greeting needs to be intricate. For example, we may feel compelled to stop and talk to a friendly neighbour, as a form of greeting, when we meet on the street. Let us now imagine the (now unfortunately familiar) scene when we intentionally avoid doing this, and the other person senses our intention: as a consequence of COVID-19, when meeting our neighbour we might wave our hand and then visibly distance ourselves from the other person, in an attempt to pass by as quickly as possible, to ensure that we do not expose ourselves to this dangerous virus. We may attempt to rationalise our behaviour by murmuring an apology or making a joke about COVID-19, but might still unavoidably trigger bad feelings. In other words, our rational attempt to protect both our own health and the other person’s health may be overcome by the seemingly ‘less-rational’ feeling of offence. Well, such feelings may not actually be ‘less-rational’ because in normal circumstances we have learnt that following interactional rituals is rational human behaviour.
Researchers in the field often describe this phenomenon by arguing that ritual is morally loaded. Once one fails to observe the order of a ritual, morally-loaded evaluations emerge: people will feel offended. Consequently, a key practical task for research on social distancing and interaction is to examine how we can overcome the bad feelings that social distancing unavoidably triggers. Such bad feelings can be expected to increase with the opening up of countries worldwide: while people will gradually be allowed to leave their homes, many governments and stakeholders will recommend maintaining social distancing. In such a vague situation, it will be particularly important to consider what research on interactional ritual can offer, not only to the decision maker whose responsibility it is to enforce social distancing, but also to the ‘layperson’.
The Research featured in the blog was supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Momentum Grant (LP2017/5)