Coronavirus etiquette: How to show respect and stay safe as restrictions lift in Australia

Social etiquette and public health experts share practical tips for Australians to adapt to the "new normal" and be respectful of others in their day-to-day lives.

Germ-free greetings will be key to keeping coronavirus under control.

Germ-free greetings will be key to keeping coronavirus under control. Source: AAP

From making sure you have open body language to taking the first avocado you pick up, Australians need to adapt to a new set of social etiquette rules to show respect and protect themselves and others from coronavirus. 

As states and territories gradually lift restrictions, more people are returning to work, going shopping and visiting friends and family, but maintaining social distance and good hand hygiene will be crucial to minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

So what is the social etiquette in these circumstances in the office and in public?

Germ-free gestures

Director and founder of the Sydney School of Protocol, Julie Lamberg-Burnet told SBS News that germ-free gestures are the way forward.

Ms Lamberg-Burnet said that being the first to initiate a kind hello is important to ensure people don’t feel uncomfortable.

“If you're approaching someone, I think you'll put people at ease if you take the lead. Obviously you can't put your hand out to shake, but just really be open in your body language; waving, smiling, being warm."

In more informal circumstances Ms Lamberg-Burnet encourages elbow-to-elbow engagement and peace sign greetings. 

“Well, [elbow-to-elbow] has become quite popular. I think you have to make a judgement call on that. Is it appropriate for who you’re meeting? We wouldn't suggest that you do if it doesn’t seem right in the context that you're in.” 

“I mean in even more informal circumstances, people using the 'V' sign - it's become a global way of greeting and I think it's acceptable. But again, it depends what's appropriate. I wouldn't probably use it in a business context.”

CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, Terry Slevin, said physical contact presents a genuine risk when it comes to disease transmission so Australians must adapt to different types of social practices.

“The social etiquette, the normal practices that we've all grown up with are likely to change and we need to find new ways of expressing that,” he said. 

New social practices such as elbow to elbow contact must be adapted to in the 'new normal' way of living.
Source: Getty Images North America

When it comes to the workplace, Ms Lamberg-Burnet encourages people to maintain spatial awareness in the workplace.

She suggests replacing the handshake with "a lovely smile, a lovely greeting, open-ended questions and open posture”.

From a public health perspective, Mr Slevin said that sanitation must continue in workplaces as a standard practice. That means sanitising on the way in and out and before using any shared equipment. 

Shopping and social distancing

Mr Slevin said that social distancing measures are particularly important in crowds at shopping centres and supermarkets.

“Where we can avoid close proximity in large crowds and keep physical distance as a more routine part of the way we operate, have a greater focus on preventive health if we do that, [we] reduce those communicable diseases and exposure to virus."

Australian supermarkets use stickers to imply the need for social distancing measures.
Source: Getty

Ms Lamberg-Burnet said that shoppers must become more aware of how they act.

“It's not really appropriate to go and squeeze the avocado anymore as much as we were all tempted to do that before, and given what we know.

“I do think we need to be seen doing the right thing in our communities or in a situation with a lot of people.”

While medical experts say it is not necessary for everyone to wear masks, Ms Lamberg-Burnet said it is another way to show respect. 

“I would wear one out of respect for people if I'm going shopping or out where I'm going to be with a lot of people. I think it's a good thing to do, because it's actually protecting others.”


Mr Slevin is concerned Australians are becoming lax about washing their hands for as long or often as required. 

"We were singing Happy Birthday twice - I'd ask the question whether that's still the case and whether people even sustain that level of hygiene practice now compared to when the virus first appeared. I suspect we probably have slipped on that."

These changes have seen a great decrease in the number of cases of flu when compared to previous years, he added.

The importance of hygiene practices like sneezing into your elbow has become highlighted as polite social etiquette amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Source: picture alliance

"The flu rates have gone through the floor and that's because we've been physically separated from other people in the community and we've increased our hygiene practices."

Ms Lamberg-Burnet and Mr Slevin both endorse the sneezing into the elbow method.

"We've become far more diligent about sneezing in the crook of our elbow or covering our face and mouth which we always should have done. But this is a strong reminder that this is an important hygiene practice that we should just simply adopt long into the future," Mr Slevin said.


Hugging and handshaking come as second nature to most people, but so does taking care of one another. Ultimately, these slightly awkward changes should be able to be easily incorporated into the 'new normal'.

But if one of your friends or family isn't adhering to the rules, Ms Lamberg-Burnet said that there's a straightforward way to let someone know that you're not up for that usual hug.

"Have that conversation when you meet someone. Just say 'Look, I'm still really mindful of this - and have you read so and so in the paper or seen it on the news?' Use it as a conversation piece as well, as opposed to being too dictatorial. You still want those interactions to be comfortable.

"New normal is going to look and feel different from prior to this so I think it's making those adjustments and being open minded about how you manage your own personal life. I think we need to all encourage each other to support these [ways] because Australia has done a fantastic job."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at

Published 11 May 2020 at 2:34pm
By Bernadette Clarke