New Pandemic-Era Accessory: A Bracelet That Signals Your Boundaries - WSJ

The Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce in Virginia has restarted its in-person business networking events. Handshakes, back slaps and close talkers are optional these days.

Instead, attendees at the group’s events are encouraged to select a new pandemic-era accessory: brightly colored wristbands or stickers that signal whether they want others to come physically close or stay the heck away.

A plastic display sign provides the code, modeled on traffic lights: Red means “no contact” with “no exceptions.” Yellow means “elbow only,” as in stick to the elbow bump, pal. As for green, the sign says: “Hugs welcome.”

“The greens are just ready to party,” says Danielle Fitz-Hugh, the president of the chamber, near Richmond.

Others, meanwhile, stand off to the side of the room. “I’m always like, ‘Why are you over here?’, ” says Ms. Fitz-Hugh. “They’ll say, ‘I’m a red.’ ”

Americans are returning to offices, trade shows, meet-and-greets and wedding receptions, but individual needs for personal space aren’t the same after a long hiatus from face-to-face schmoozing and socializing. Some guests are ready to lean in for group photos. Others favor an extremely distant air kiss or a wave from afar.

Office managers, convention planners and party hosts are distributing color-coded wristbands, stickers or lanyards designed to signal preferences without the awkward conversations. But the new system has created plenty of its own new awkwardness. Having so many colorful characters in one place gets complicated.

Carefree greens can overwhelm the reds, who are often hiding in the corner, throwing shade on the group. Ambivalent yellows might act red around some guests and green around others. Then there are the chameleons—people-pleasers who can’t commit to any particular hue, and don red, green and yellow wristbands all at once.

Patrick McFadden, the chief executive officer of Indispensable Marketing, chooses a yellow sticker when he goes to the Chesterfield Chamber’s events. He says he’s fine swapping elbow or fist taps, but he doesn’t want others breathing on him. Not everyone gets the message.

“You do have those people who ignore stickers,” he says. “You get the frequent hugger who doesn’t care.”

For his part, he says, he’s still trying to figure out the red-sticker group, or what he calls “the six-feet perimeter person.” He has to stand back and raise his voice to chat.

“It’s hard to network with that person,” he says. “You’re like ‘SO, WHAT DO YOU HAVE GOING ON?’ ”

“It just looks weird,” he says.

The new stickers and wristbands are typically optional, though organizers say they are quite popular. Still, correctly ordering social-distancing supplies is no black-and-white matter.

At the Southeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives’ annual conference in Savannah, Ga., in late March, the 325 attendees could grab a rubber wristband from one of three big glass bowls. Placards explained the meaning of each:

Green was for those “Celebrating like it’s 2019.”

Yellow: “2020 has me confused.”

The sign for red was sadder: “Wake me up in 2022.”

Organizers had brought an equal number of each hue, but the crowd—many of them masked—was more ready to press the flesh than predicted. Demand exceeded the supply of green wristbands just hours into the registration, says Lenard Robinson, the co-chair of the conference and a facilities director at the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.

“Y’all really missed us,” he says he thought to himself.

Mr. Robinson, meanwhile, says he is a social butterfly who couldn’t pick just one color of wristband.

“I’m an all-three wearer,” he says. “I look at what other people have on their wrist and depending on what they had, was how I related: hug or handshake or wave from afar.”

“I’m more of a yellow,” says his conference co-chair Meghan Dunn, a manager at the Savannah Airport Commission who wore that color but says she stayed nimble in her behavior: “For individuals I knew, it was more of a green.”

Ms. Dunn ordered those wristbands off Amazon from one of several purveyors of social-cues accessories.

Elation Factory Co. in Houston, a producer of decorations and other event-related materials, pivoted to making “sneeze guards” for the beauty industry in the pandemic. “It was a natural evolution to start selling social distancing signs,” says co-owner Ron Pollvogt.

The company offers a “social distancing event kit” that it says “allows guests to, quite literally, read the room.” It comes with color-coded wristbands and a sign, and is also available in Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

Customers can choose signs with standard messages, such as “Okay with talking but not touching” or the company will personalize them. Mr. Pollvogt said buyers have ordered signs with directives from “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” to “Six feet, bitches!”

Denver wedding planner Brynn Swanson says her clients like color-coded wristbands as a way to avoid “that uncomfortable conversation with Aunt Judy at the bar.”

“Though I will say that once a few drinks get poured, all bets are off and everyone is hugging anyway,” she says.

Wintrust Financial Corp. , based in Rosemont, Ill., recently started distributing green, yellow and red social-distancing wristbands as an option for the growing number of employees returning to the office, says Norah Larke, chief human resources officer. (Green is “high-fives and handshakes.”)

“It’s kind of cheesy but it sends the right message,” she says.

In Virginia, the Chesterfield chamber initially offered only the color-coded wristbands, but they would get covered up by long sleeves and people would be struggling to see the color, says Ms. Fitz-Hugh. They are also a bit too casual and “a little itchy,” says Brad Strouse, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors. So the chamber later added the stickers.

Mr. Strouse, a producer and consultant with ECE National, an entertainment firm, saw a lot of green stickers at the chamber’s recent luncheon in May, but says he’s still a yellow sticker, meaning an elbow-bump guy.

“You do have people who reach out to shake your hand,” he says. “And you point to the sticker.”

Some Chesterfield chamber attendees have changed colors over time. Mark Bowen, the marketing and operations director for Westchester Commons, a shopping center, put a yellow sticker on his badge at an April chamber event. “It let people know that I was not quite there yet,” he says. “It was fistbumps; it was elbows. Air high-fives.”

In late May, now fully vaccinated, he went with a green sticker for an event.

“It really was refreshing,” he says. “When they see green, they’re gonna come right up.”

Write to Jennifer Levitz at jennifer.levitz@wsj.com

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