How To Politely Ask Someone To Follow COVID-19 Guidelines : Life Kit How do you tell a stranger to be better at social distancing? What do you do when a backyard gathering suddenly has one too many unmasked guests? This episode walks through the new rules of etiquette during COVID-19.
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COVID-19 Etiquette: 6 Common Conundrums (And A Printable Pocket Guide)

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COVID-19 Etiquette: 6 Common Conundrums (And A Printable Pocket Guide)

COVID-19 Etiquette: 6 Common Conundrums (And A Printable Pocket Guide)

COVID-19 Etiquette: 6 Common Conundrums (And A Printable Pocket Guide)

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/896134292/898763532" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Malaka Gharib/NPR
A comic illustrating how to handle tricky situations during the coronavirus pandemic. On the left, a "do." A person standing in a grocery line says, "Sir, can we please put a little space between us?" as they scoot forward. On the right, a "don't." A person points to others, saying, "The mayor says that masks are required in public spaces, and you're violating the order! Wear your mask!!!"
Malaka Gharib/NPR

Last week, I was inside a convenience store, and a deliveryman was stocking up sodas in the refrigerated aisle without wearing a mask. It made me feel uncomfortable. We were in a small, windowless space together. If the deliveryman had been sick and shedding virus, it could have easily spread through the air inside the store.

As I waited in the checkout line, I felt my anxiety growing. What should I do in this situation? Should I say something?

That's when I could have really used the advice of Elaine Swann, founder of the Swann School of Protocol, an etiquette training institute. She trains people on good manners, for example, how to engage in small talk or which fork to use at the dinner table. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, she has been helping people navigate some tricky new social dilemmas — like my convenience store situation.

Although we are living through a pandemic, says Swann, people still want to treat each other with kindness and respect — and "conduct themselves so that they're not offending others, not hurting other people's feelings."

That's probably why I felt so awkward about speaking up at the store — even though my own safety was at stake, I didn't want to offend the deliveryman. After talking to Swann, I learned two solutions I could have deployed in that scenario. I could have asked the person with authority, the cashier, to direct the deliveryman to wear his mask. Or I could have popped out of the store until the deliveryman was finished, then popped back in again.

Swann, the author of Let Crazy Be Crazy: Then Politely Get What You Want, Get Your Point Across, and Gently Put Rude People in Their Place, talked to NPR about how to tackle six common COVID-19 conundrums.

Print And Fold Your Own COVID-19 Etiquette Guide

You can print out a mini-book — or zine — with some of etiquette expert Elaine Swann's advice. Fold it using these directions (courtesy of The Oregonian). Keep it in your back pocket, or give one to a friend.


1. How do I tell somebody — especially a stranger — to step back because that person is just too close to me?

Swann says this is the No. 1 question people ask her. Your first inclination is to yell out, "Step back!" or "Get up off me!" she says — but those reactions aren't exactly polite, and they're likely to escalate the problem.

Instead, she says, try to use words like "we" and "us" in the request. For example, "Let's just put a little bit of space in between each other while we're waiting in line." This shows mutual consideration — you're thinking about how your behavior is affecting their health — and hope they are concerned with your safety too.

Panel 2
Malaka Gharib/NPR

If you ask in a kind manner, people are likely to do as you ask, says Swann. More often than not, people want to be respectful of others.

But if you start lecturing about pandemic safety or take on an abrasive tone, they might not be as willing to comply. They might "feel like they're being chastised" or perceive your request as an attack on their moral character — that they are someone who does not follow rules. That might offend the person or make them feel defensive — and ultimately, the person might refuse your request.

Takeaway 1: Show mutual consideration.

2. What if I ask a person to keep their distance or put on their mask — and they say no?

"Then, do what you can to protect yourself," says Swann: Turn your face away from that person, step over a few feet, walk in a different direction.

Takeaway 2: Protect yourself.

3. It makes my blood boil when I see people not following the pandemic guidelines. Can I intervene?

Panel 3
Malaka Gharib/NPR

"If their behavior is not affecting you, let it go," she says. "Folks are getting into these arguments and kerfuffles because they're trying to get folks to comply with the pandemic guidelines. Stop trying to do that if the person does not want to comply. You have to let crazy be crazy and leave them alone."

The only time you should speak up, she says, is if it's directly affecting your safety. Then you can try using some of the "we" and "us" language in her suggestion above.

Takeaway 3: Let it go.

4. What if I'm at a socially distanced outdoor gathering and, after a few hours, people start to bend the rules a little bit?

Try using the "we" and "us" language if it's just happening with an individual, says Swann — saying to the person, "Let's make sure we stay in our little sections over here."

But if it's happening partywide, alert the host, she says. The person in charge has the authority to enforce the pandemic guidelines. Swann suggests: "I noticed that people are starting to get relaxed with the guidelines. I thought I'd bring that to your attention."

Panel 4
Malaka Gharib/NPR

If the host does something about it, then great, says Swann. "But if the shift doesn't happen and you're uncomfortable with the environment, then wrap it up. Just say, 'You know what — I'm gonna head on home now. I had a great time.' "

Resist the urge to get on your soapbox, she adds. "Don't make an announcement and say, 'Nobody's following the rules, and therefore I'm leaving' — then slam the door on your way out." You want to make sure that your relationships make it to the other side of the pandemic, she adds.

Takeaway 4: Take yourself out of uncomfortable situations — and remember to preserve relationships.

5. A friend invited me to hang out. How do I know whether it's safe to do so? We might not be on the same page with the pandemic protocols.

Don't make assumptions about how people are following the guidelines, says Swann. Some people, for example, feel safer staying at home, while others live as if the virus didn't exist. So ask a few questions in advance, she says. For example: "I wear a face covering when I'm around others. How do you feel about wearing face coverings? Is that something you're doing? Is this going to be a social distancing affair?"

Panel 5
Malaka Gharib/NPR

Listen to what they have to say. "Then take a moment to step back and ask yourself whether it is something you feel comfortable with," says Swann. "If not, say, 'Thank you so much for the invitation, but I won't be able to make it.' "

And don't push them to change their plans to fit your level of comfort, she adds. "This is not the time to police our friends and our family members. Instead, we should curtail our own behavior and make decisions on what's best for ourselves."

Takeaway 5: Don't assume.

6. BONUS ADVICE: What the heck do I do with my mask at a socially distanced meal?

When you're eating, take the mask off completely, says Swann. And, she adds, "don't have it hanging from one ear." You're going to be chomping and chewing and drinking and talking in the duration of that time, so it doesn't make sense to try to wear it at the table, she explains.

But don't even think about putting your used mask on the table, says Swann. Aside from the germs, it's a major etiquette no-no. In general, she says, "nothing should go on the table except for food." That includes your cellphone, purse, keys, hat, laptop — and, of course, your mask.

Carefully "place it in your bag, purse or in your pocket. Or you can place it on your lap underneath your napkin," she says. "That way it is easily accessible when your server comes over to you." Remember to mask up when your server is around, she notes, to keep them safe too.

Takeaway 6: Please don't put your mask on the table.

Don't forget to print out A Pocket Guide to COVID-19 Etiquette With Elaine Swann. Fold it using these directions (courtesy of The Oregonian).


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The podcast portion of this story was produced by Sylvie Douglis.