Sticky Situations: COVID Etiquette 101

How do you tell someone to keep their distance / not visit you / mask up / or that they’re endangering others? Here's how
Mind the Gap! - Photo: N. Bresler

Back in March, when I wrote about etiquette in the age of Coronavirus, I could not have imagined half of the questions that would arise. I teach Business Etiquette , so I get lots of questions from students about how to cope with the sticky situations that present themselves these days. And there are many!

Let’s get one thing straight: I am not Ms. Manners. Not even close. There actually is a Miss Manners, by the way. In fact, there’s a whole Manners family. Google ‘Miss Manners’ and you will find Judith Martin, the real Miss Manners, who took up where Emily Post left off. Judith Martin (née Perlman) has been cheerfully giving etiquette advice for over 4 decades. Today, her children are carrying on her work as she has passed her 80th birthday – may she be healthy! The Manners family have even penned an e-book for these tricky times: Miss Manners’ Guide to Contagious Etiquette. There have also been articles from other etiquette mavens about proper behavior during this pandemic.

But back here in my home office a/k/a  my dining room table, I am asked questions in real time and I’m expected to come up with the answers on the spot. I don’t always know the right thing to do, as I’ve learned through a long career of embarrassing mistakes.  Learning that I might not be the smartest person in the room is a humbling experience – especially now when I am the ONLY person in the room!

So when I get a question these days, I take a breath before answering. I use the golden rule and ask myself: What would I want to hear if I were on the receiving end? I give my answers in the first person, rather than spouting edicts. I often start with words like ‘Yeah, that is a problem. Here’s what I do.’

Staying safe means never having to say you’re sorry. I regularly advise my students not to apologize for asserting themselves. Some of my students, far from the stereotype of the arrogant Israeli, can be too polite at times. I remind them that they are just doing their jobs, which is in the best interest of all parties, and that there’s no need to preface every request with an apology. Same goes for COVID 19 interactions. No need to apologize for stepping away to avoid proximity. In fact, this is the polite thing to do. When you keep your distance, you are protecting the people around you as well as yourself.

One thing to remember is that you can smile visibly even when you are wearing a mask – which should always be the case when you are out in public! Remember that a true smile starts at the eyes. Your smiling eyes and those lovely laugh lines are visible even from a distance of 2 meters. A genuine smile is the universal sign of good intention and you should use it liberally. There’s an added benefit to frequent smiling: it actually helps put us in a good mood! So smile! If nothing else, it will make people wonder what you’ve been up to!

Smile! – Photo: N. Bresler

One other thing to bear in mind is that life is easier when we assume good intentions on the part of others. Do not presume people are trying to harm you or infect you. The differences in behavior we see are because people have differing opinions of what it means to stay safe. Etiquette is a code of behavior. And codes need to be deciphered. This COVID 19 situation is stressful and confusing. We hear conflicting information. Government and public health authorities often disagree with one another and the rules change daily. In a world where we get mixed messages about how to behave, we can not expect everyone to agree on the code. So give people the benefit of the doubt. And smile.

Here are some of the questions I’ve gotten lately, with my answers.

Q:  How do I tell someone to keep their distance?

A: This is probably the most frequently-asked question these days all over the world, but especially here in Israel where personal space is something of a foreign concept. The scene of the crime may be a supermarket, bank, or post office – places that have always been challenging in our cheek-to-cheek Israeli culture. The taped markers on the floor or sidewalk are no help — people are already standing all over them. Since I keep my distance from the person in front of me, the people I need to worry about have come up from behind. This is standard Israeli queueing procedure: stand in line, now creep up gradually until you are upon the person in front of you. This is such an ingrained habit that it’s hard to break, even after countless reminders about keeping one’s distance. Here’s what I do: I turn to the person who is breathing down my neck. I smile. Yes, smile! I put my hands up in front of me and signal the person to back up. I plant my feet firmly in place and use my body language to show that I am standing in my spot and not planning to budge. Usually this is enough to get the creeper to back up. If not, ask a nearby guard or shop employee to tell people to keep their distance. There are guards at the entrance of every building these days, and their job includes keeping order, as well as taking temperatures and checking for masks.

Q: I am isolating. What should I tell people who invite themselves to visit me?

A: You have the answer already. Just say, “I am isolating.” You can add, “but I’d love to catch up with you on the phone or zoom. Let’s plan a call so we can have a long chat. What’s a good time for you?”  I have come to hate the term ‘social distancing’. It’s about physical distance, not social distance. The challenge in these COVID times is to maintain our social relationships while keeping our distance. It’s not fun. It’s not easy. But it’s doable.

Q: How can I tell someone to mask up?

A: If you keep your distance from people, this will not be a frequent problem. This is only necessary when someone is approaching you and close contact is unavoidable. For me, the only time I feel the need to do this is when I am in an elevator and someone else wants to get in, or when I am facing a shop employee who is unmasked or, more often, improperly masked. Otherwise, when I pass unmasked people in the street, I just step up my pace and walk on by, like in the song. But when an unmasked person tries to get into the elevator, I do assert myself. I make a gesture with my hand, sweeping up from my chin and stopping to cover the lower half of my face. If they have a mask handy, as they should, they usually put it on. If they don’t have a mask, and give me a dismissive shrug, I actually put my hands out to signal stop and shake my head no. No apology necessary. I am taking care of my health and this is my right. I have had this happen several times, since I live in a land full of unmasked people who seem to think they are immune to pandemics. I have had to assert myself, and I have been successful with those simple gestures.

Q: How do I tell someone they’re endangering others?

A: Don’t. It’s not our job to tell other people how to live. Take care of yourself. Keep your distance and mind your own space. Mind your manners. And smile!

About the Author
Nili Bresler is a member of Israel's pro-democracy movement. She is a business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, Nili was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. Nili volunteers with the nonprofit, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives in Ramat Gan.
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