THE WINDING ROAD

Adapting to post-Covid

IT WAS a shock to me when I walked into an event hall last month (September) and found that most of the people were mingling unmasked.

As I was led by a staff member to my seat at the table, I realised that only one person sported the familiar blue covering over the face.

Uneasiness started growing within me as pleasantries were exchanged, and thoughts such as "will they find me rude if I don't remove my mask" flashed through my mind.

Eventually, I caved in when an acquaintance walked past and casually said: "Oi, remove it la!"

I felt awkward at the beginning. From being a part of the majority who wore masks, I now belong to the minority. But after getting over the initial embarrassment of dithering between "mask on or mask off", I started to wonder if I was the only one who felt like I committed a social faux pas.

"No! I actually wanted to wear my mask too but felt pressured to take it off seeing so many of people around me maskless! In fact, lots of my friends seem to be travelling now and I kind of want to go too, although I'm not sure if it is the right time," my friend chimed in when I told her how I felt.

That got me wondering whether people are putting pressure on us to conform to certain expectations on how we "should" behave post-Covid, or does the "coercion" actually come from ourselves? Is there a template on the proper decorum post-Covid, as we have been through so many changes through these few years?

Samuel Chng, who heads the Urban Psychology Lab at Singapore University of Technology and Design's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, puts it this way. "It's a combination of peer pressure, personal fear and apprehension resulting from different risk perceptions (some had Covid-19 and thus supposedly have stronger immunity, while others have not). Also, our social norms are currently morphing."

Indeed, it has always been the case where the majority in a group decide on something on behalf of everyone in the group, and the others feel obliged to go along. For example, if six people in a group of eight decide to grab a beer after work, the other two, though not too keen, may follow suit even though they are unwilling.

"This is akin to FOMO (fear of missing out) in many ways where what we're observing is a complex phenomenon… and perhaps it's the growing perception of missing out especially as we visually see people take off their masks and socialise, and travel like before. This affects our relatedness, the need to belong. Thus we are inclined to follow up with a compulsive behavior to maintain these social connections," Dr Chng added.

Victor Seah, senior lecturer of psychology at Singapore University of Social Sciences, says that while research has yet to be done, it is predictive that as more people do a certain action, the minority may be swayed to conform.

Dr Seah adds that to combat conformity, one can seek out others who would dissent too, as "conformity is also less effective when there are dissenting others".

But rather than seek to conform or not, I think we should, at the end of the day, be quite sure ourselves of our own values and interests. On certain matters, we should know how we would respond in a situation or what we wish to do in the circumstances, and not be steered by external pressures. And in the process, one may discover that a lot of "social norms" that we adhere to are just added pressure that we put on ourselves.

At the same time, as we navigate the post-Covid era, and with it the drastic societal changes and norms that will continue to take place in the coming months, there is a need to be more consciously open to and accepting of other viewpoints as we, and society, recalibrate and find an equilibrium.

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