What is normal?
The other day I was in a discussion with a number of people about post-pandemic dating. One person in the group told me their new approach to connecting was simply to directly chat up anyone and everyone who seemed remotely interesting. “I’ll just ask them on a date, like whatever. If they think it’s strange, or too much, that’s on them. Anyone who thinks anything is strange right now is not someone I want to be talking to anyway. What’s wrong with you if you’re acting normal right now?”
In addition to all the Waxxed and Vaxxed baby, ROARING TWENTIES headlines we are bombarded with, there seems to be no shortage of articles about the different ways we are all coping, or not, as we move back into the world. Many of these pieces appear to focus on normalizing certain behaviors. Giving permission to feel however you feel. They often sound like the following: It’s totally fine to feel anxious right now. It’s okay if you don’t want to go outside. Don’t feel bad if you like being at home. Don’t feel bad if you miss the office! It’s totally normal to not know how to speak to anyone.
But the more I actually speak with people, the more I think it would be equally helpful to de-normalize so-called “normal behavior.”
I’m sure you’ve interacted with the sorts of people I’m referring to. The ones who have immediately slipped back into their pre-pandemic lives as though the last eighteen months didn’t happen. But even more jarring is that they can’t seem to grasp why others have not done the same. As though close to four million people globally have not died from this virus. As though our economy hasn’t been upended (anyone who’s tried to book a plane ticket recently can tell you it’s more like Roaring Inflation. As if many parts of the globe aren’t still under lockdown. This is not normal.
More than “not normal,” it can feel like an extreme form of gaslighting combined with a deep absence of empathy. Primarily, what it is, however, is evidence that the lives these people were living pre-pandemic were suiting them just fine, which is simply another way to say they were extremely privileged. Because the world, as you likely know, pre-pandemic was not great for most people, and if you were paying attention at all, you also know that all COVID did was pull back a curtain, or remove some Matrix-like goggles, so that all the inequities became, for a time, impossible to ignore.
What the eager to return to normal crowd are essentially saying is that they’d prefer to return to the ignoring. Increasingly this includes everyone who appears to be shocked that folks do not want to go back to work for minimal pay and long hours.
The subhead on this New York Times piece about Missouri rolling back employee benefits but not seeing a rise in employment has stuck with me.
Missouri scrapped federal pay to the unemployed, saying it kept people out of the labor market. But so far, workers still seem to be choosy.
Choosy is a real choice word in this context. This is the lede that follows:
By lunchtime, the representatives from the recruiting agency Express Employment Professionals decided to pack up and leave the job fair in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights. Hardly anyone had shown up.
“We were hoping we would see pre pandemic levels,” said Courtney Boyle, general manager of Express.
“Pre-pandemic levels.” I.E. the norm.
“One way you might define normal is when employers and workers have the same idea of what an appropriate package looks like, and then the issue is matching up the people with the jobs,” said Katharine G. Abraham, an economist at the University of Maryland and a former commissioner at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Clearly part of the problem now,” she said, “is that what employers and what workers think is out of whack.”
Emphasis mine. Here’s another way you might define normal: a way of living that for a very long time has benefitted the few to the suffering of the many (I’m sure there is a dating analogy in here if you dig. Something like, women being required to act demure in order to be chosen, instead of just saying what they want, and choosing who they want).
Like so many of the narratives this country has adhered to, what is normal and what is beneficial widely diverge. We are in a moment when a majority of people who have rarely had any say in defining the former are demanding the latter apply to them as well. How long this lasts will likely depend on how well people organize toward the changes they’d like to see. In the meantime, as we head into the long weekend, and what is already setting itself up to be a long hot summer, maybe it’s time to view any use of the word normal as a red flag. Or as the dating crowd likes to say, a dealbreaker.