"Knowing how to behave always gives you an advantage," Capricia Penavic Marshall tells PEOPLE

By Sam Gillette
June 26, 2020 11:00 AM
The author
Dorothy Hong

Will people ever shake hands again? Will cheek kissing become passé?

These once standard greetings have become dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic — and many are left wondering what etiquette will look like in a post-pandemic world.

"Knowing how to behave always gives you an advantage. During this time of social distancing, I am recommending that you, of course, not touch one another, but that you rely on other ways in which you can communicate," Capricia Penavic Marshall, former U.S. chief of protocol under President Barack Obama, tells PEOPLE while discussing her new book, Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You, which was released on Tuesday.

"Language and extending [can] help you reinforce your greeting," Marshall, 56, continues. "And what I mean by that is by using the tone of your voice, your expressions. Be very intentional in your word choice and convey messages of warmth and welcome. It helps quite a bit when you are unable to have that human-human [connection] with the handshake."

The namaste gesture or the bow are safe alternatives to the handshake, Marshall explains. (Currently, social distancing guidelines recommend people stay six feet or more apart and wear masks while in public.) But she's also interested in what people will come up with in these touch-free times.

Marshall, who previously served as social secretary during the Clinton administration, doesn't think cheek kissing is gone forever.

For more on social-shifting etiquette from Capricia Penavic Marshall, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.


"With coronavirus being so incredibly contagious today, I think that cheek kissing is really inappropriate for the time being. And probably for a long while, but I do not believe that it will be passé," Marshall says. "I think that it will come back because we will get better at some point. But I do think that we might be migrating from that European triple kiss to the Americanized air kiss for the near future."

An expert in the diplomatic art of etiquette, Marshall knows what she's talking about. Her book pulls from her 12 years in the White House to give everyday people guidance in "soft power" tools.

Her hope is that her memories and advice together provide guidance so that anyone — from government officials to parents on a parent-teacher conference call — can improve relationships by communicating with care and purpose.

"My job was to elevate our diplomatic engagements when the leaders of my country were working with others at the very highest levels. They were trying to navigate their foreign policy differences and come to some sort of agreement," she explains of the importance of protocol. "My hope is that people will see that there is this magical tool out there that, unbeknownst to them, could shift their negotiations. It could pivot the power to their advantage."

RELATED VIDEO: Andrew Cuomo & Daughters Look Back at 3 Months in Center of COVID-19 Pandemic: A 'Silver Lining' in Heartache

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Capricia Penavic Marshall
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock

Marshall writes in Protocol about the ways that a room's decorations and lighting and even the hanging of a flag or the thought behind a gift can positively or negatively impact the progress of a meeting.

And she also has guidance for people navigating virtual meetings. The first rule: make sure your technology is working!

"You still need to be on time. You still need to make introductions," Marshall explains. "Before you get on the call, you need to know who you're meeting with. You need to understand what the goals of this meeting are."

Appearance — both for yourself and your surroundings — matters.

"How are you presenting yourself? If this is a work meeting, what does my environment now say about me?" she continues. "If I'm sitting in my bedroom with an unmade bed and all of my laundry strewn all over the place, that certainly is not conveying confidence!"

Protocol is on sale now.