The New Rules of Covid-Etiquette: Be Awkward, Not Rude
People wearing protective masks walk through Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photographer: Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg)

The New Rules of Covid-Etiquette: Be Awkward, Not Rude

Social interactions were relatively easy to ignore during lockdown, but they’ve been thrust into the spotlight as people take vacations, back-to-school plans form, and restaurants reopen. It seems everyone has to make up their own rules of behavior.

Enter the etiquette experts, whose advice now extends beyond simple socializing to mitigating the virus. A switch-up in protocols is nothing new, they say: In medieval times, knights would raise their face mask to signal friendly intent, a gesture that evolved into the hat tip in Western societies in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What’s changed is the speed at which our habits have been transformed, says Maryanne Parker, founder of Manor of Manners in San Diego. “Before it would take years and years to develop, but everything happened so sudden. Now it’s just crazy.”

Because of this rapid shift, these proponents of proper conduct urge more patience and goodwill from everyone involved. “For us to survive, we have to change,” Parker says. “We have to adjust if we want to be part of a healthy ­society.”

Here, she and four other etiquette authorities deliver the final word—at least for now—on how to be polite even in a pandemic.

The New Rules of Covid-Etiquette: Be Awkward, Not Rude

How should I greet people?
Instead of a handshake, Jodi Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass., recommends choosing phrases that a warm embrace would otherwise convey. “I’m so excited to meet you” is one option, or “I would love to shake your hand, but we’re going to have to wait until 2021.”

What if they get offended?
If possible, lay out expectations beforehand when arranging plans. “I want people to be as clear as possible what is going to happen when meeting somebody,” Smith says. You could say, for instance, “I just want to let you know, normally I would shake your hand, but in this case, I will not.” An assertive ­heads-up is best. “Whenever there is ambiguity,” she says, “people get nervous.”

What if someone goes in for a hug?
Old habits die hard. To stop an incoming hug, David Coggins, author of Men and Manners, suggests staying 6 feet apart. “That’s a long way for someone to lunge at you,” he says. If a friend is intent on a handshake, Smith recommends clasping your hands in front of you—rather than jumping back or pulling your hands away—and offering a bow or nod. A little humor helps, too, especially among friends. Make a joke, Coggins says, like “I’m keeping my hands to myself,” or “It’s been six months since I’ve hugged someone, and I’m keeping the streak going.”

The New Rules of Covid-Etiquette: Be Awkward, Not Rude

Should I attend a social event?
As people begin to venture out of strict isolation and meet up with friends, it becomes important to communicate your safety concerns. There’s nothing wrong with asking for more details about an event you’re invited to, whether it’s an outdoor cocktail hour or backyard barbecue. Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, suggests saying, “I’m practicing social distancing, but I’d love to come. Can you tell me more about your plan for the party?” Ask about the number of guests, whether it will be indoors, if food will be shared, and what the mask protocol will be.

How do I say no?
If what they say doesn’t sound safe, it’s fine to decline, no excuse required. Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas in San Antonio, suggests saying “I’m looking forward to seeing you in the near future” to help smooth over hurt feelings.

What if I’m invited to stay overnight with a friend?
The same logic extends to an invitation to stay at someone’s home, but with different questions to determine your risk tolerance. In addition to mask-related requirements, “ask where you will be sleeping, will you be sharing a bathroom, how will the meals be prepared, and other visitors who will overlap with your stay,” Smith says. If you accept, consider bringing—or contributing to the purchase of—any cleaning supplies and plan to take part in sanitizing your own personal areas.

The New Rules of Covid-Etiquette: Be Awkward, Not Rude

How much should I tip?
The classic guideline of tipping 15% to 20% of the total check isn’t adequate during a pandemic. There’s no hard-and-fast rule on a percentage increase, but because all essential workers are risking virus exposure to do their jobs, 50% isn’t out of the question. “I encourage people to tip to the point of pain,” Smith says. If pizza for the family costs $25, leaving $10 or even $15 would be an appropriate gesture. If you cannot afford that, at least don’t undertip, Parker says, and be vocal about how much you appreciate the service. If you’re using a mobile app to order delivery, use the gratuity feature on its platform to avoid close contact or the exchange of unsanitary bills.

The New Rules of Covid-Etiquette: Be Awkward, Not Rude

What if my family asks to visit?
Another minefield this summer is requests to visit from loved ones, especially parents or grandparents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says close contact with older adults isn’t wise, as the risk of getting severely ill from Covid-19 increases with age. Taking a let’s-delay-a-bit tack avoids a flat-out no, Whitmore says. “Just be honest and say, ‘We’re being very cautious right now, and we’re trying not to expose ourselves to people. Can we wait a couple of months?’ ” If you do play host, Parker says, it’s your responsibility to enforce the rules.

My parents aren’t taking this seriously. What should I say?
An honest, caring approach is crucial. Broach the topic “without making it sound like you are angry but rather concerned for their health,” Gottsman says. Coggins advises to frame it as a switching of roles. “Parents who have been so carefully protecting us our whole lives, now it’s our turn to look after them. What I told them was, ‘Imagine if this was reversed. How would you behave?’ ”

Can I ask someone to wear a mask?
It depends. For a hired employee such as a plumber or electrician entering your home, asking for a facial covering is entirely appropriate. Whitmore suggests greeting them outside the home and asking, “Do you mind wearing a mask while inside?”

What about a friend?
These situations can be more tricky. Gottsman favors a clear and assertive “I’d feel more comfortable if we were both wearing a mask.” Smith suggests a self-deprecating approach: “Suzy, you know I am a bit bonkers about this pandemic. I would feel more comfortable if you put on a mask. Could you?”

The New Rules of Covid-Etiquette: Be Awkward, Not Rude

What about a total stranger?
“It’s best to avoid the situation,” Gottsman says. Instead, focus on what you can control—your own mask and distance.

But what if they’re very annoying?
If you’re determined to speak up, Coggins suggests shifting the focus to the establishment—similar to pointing out a no-smoking policy. “If you’re on an airplane, you could say, ‘I think we’re supposed to be wearing masks in here.’ ” Offering a spare mask of your own is another option. But Gottsman concedes you can’t force a person to behave a certain way. “If you are feeling uncomfortable, do what you need to do to protect yourself: Walk away.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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