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.

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

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LARELL SCARDELLI: Hi, ladies. My name is Larell Scardelli (ph). I live alone, and I'm single, so this quarantine has been a lot of solo time for me. And romance has been at an all-time low, as you can imagine. So to kind of remedy this sometimes loneliness, I've been doing something super simple - just lighting a candle and keeping it next to me while I'm working at my kitchen table or relaxing on the couch or eating a meal. And the candle just kind of reminds me that I can ignite the fire in my life without somebody else there. Like, I can sort of romance myself in my day.



This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Malaka Gharib. I'm a journalist on NPR's science desk. Last week, I was inside a convenience store and a delivery man was stocking up sodas without wearing a mask. It made me feel really uncomfortable. We were in a small, windowless space together. If the delivery man was sick and shedding virus, it could've easily spread through the air inside the store.

As I waited in the checkout line, I felt my anxiety growing. What was I supposed to do in this situation? Should I say something? Is that rude? He's just doing his job. But also, what if he has COVID?


GHARIB: Living in the age of coronavirus means confronting thoughts like these. All our normal ways of being in the world have new rules now. And the rules are so new, and people are all interpreting them differently. Hanging out on a friend's stoop, attending a backyard barbecue, going for a jog with your running buddy - behaviors that feel vital to surviving this weird time are also potential points for friction. How do you navigate social situations when everyone is on a slightly different page?

ELAINE SWANN: Folks just want to know what to do and how to conduct themselves so that they're not offending others, so that they're not hurting other people's feelings, so that they, too, show up as their best selves in this particular instance.

GHARIB: That is Elaine Swann. She's an etiquette expert. And she's a bit of a hot commodity right now as people are shifting to a new social contract during this pandemic. I called her up to get down into the nitty-gritty of all the new social etiquette norms that are being established right now. How can we keep our relationships sound, prioritize our safety and stay sane when everyday interactions are suddenly so complicated?

So let's get started with a very basic question, which is, what is etiquette?

SWANN: You know, etiquette - a lot of people think that etiquette is a bunch of rules and very strict guidelines. Etiquette really has more to do with how you show up in the world and how you treat others. It's really applying what I refer to as the three core values, which is respect, honesty and consideration - applying those core values to our daily lives, whether we're interacting with people in the grocery store (laughter) or whether we're online or perhaps even in the workplace. Really, etiquette is really centered around the way we show up in the world and how we treat others.

GHARIB: So let's start with the baseline. What is that baseline behavior that everyone is expected to inhibit during this pandemic here in the States?

SWANN: Sure. It's a little bit challenging to navigate that because there are certain behaviors we're expected to display based upon our local health officials, and then, you know, when you, you know, stretch that out to statewide and then to nationwide. But at the same time, we've got the personal aspect, our personal beliefs around the whole system.

And so in my opinion, I think what we should really be focused on more so than anything is really thinking more about how our behavior affects other people. So regardless of, you know, what your thoughts are about everything that's going on, if we think about, you know, how am I affecting this person? You know, how is what I'm saying affecting this person? How is what I'm doing affecting this person? I think if we use that as our kind of moral barometer or moral compass, it'll really help us live in a more harmonious manner.

GHARIB: You're saying to recast, to reframe things and really think of it as being considerate first to other people.

SWANN: Right. And this is the thing that we really have to do is remove ourselves from the equation and put forth our greatest effort to display consideration, which is to think about that other person and how whatever is happening might be affecting them.

Some people are going through this process in a different way. Some folks are still sheltering in. Even though their local government has said it's permissible to go out, they're saying, no, not me; I'm still staying in. And if the person decides to do that or chooses to do so, we have to respect their thought process instead of questioning the reason why or trying to preach to them and get them to change their mindset.

GHARIB: You're right. There are so many people who are, like, really - you know, even though the state government said it's OK to do X, Y, Z, they're still like, nah, I don't really feel comfortable with that. And you kind of have to respect that.

SWANN: Yes, we do. And that's the baseline is, you know, going to those core values - the respect, the honesty and consideration. So the respect factor is really respecting the other person's thought process. Respect their feelings about it.

Honesty is really being honest. We have to verbalize more now. Before, we all thought body language was a way to communicate. That's gone out of the way now. Body language is not our top of our form communication because if we're out and about, our face is covered, so you have to speak to somebody in order to convey your true feelings. If you love people, you know, you're used to giving a hug or high-five or whatever it is, and we can't do that. We can't get close to one another to convey that information that we normally would convey. And so now we have to fall back on good, old words (laughter).

So be honest and say, you know, thank you for the invitation; I'm just not comfortable coming out at this particular point in time, you know, or, listen; I really want to make sure that we're protecting one another, so I'm going to have to ask you to please take a couple of steps back so that we can put a little bit more space in between one another. All right? So that's the honesty part, really speaking out and being forthcoming.

And then the consideration, really and truly, that's where you have to go beyond yourself and say, all right, is what I'm doing going to affect somebody else in a negative manner? So respect, honesty and consideration - those three points we have to just weave it through everything we do.

GHARIB: Love that. Love that. You should teach that in school. So you've been doing a lot of interviews in this pandemic. What are some of the most commonly asked questions that you have gotten - like the question that you get all the time in every interview or, like, people - your friends asking you on a personal note, like, texting you like, hey, like, what do I - you know, what is that question?

SWANN: One of the two that I just mentioned now is, how do I tell somebody to step back 'cause they are just too close to me and I'm not comfortable, and especially if it's a stranger? So I get that question often. My answer to that question is just tell them what you want, but don't be so accusing and don't put it in a vein to where, you know, you're correcting their behavior. So my recommendation is to use words along the lines of we, us, let us do this, how about we. So you can say to the person, hey, I think it's important that we, you know, protect one another, so let's just put a little bit of space in between each other while we're waiting in line. That's one thing that you can do. So that's one question I get often.

GHARIB: Can I practice that? I just want to practice that. Like...

SWANN: Oh, yeah, let's practice. OK. Here's Mrs. Cantaloupe (laughter), who is just standing way too close to you, right? And you want her to step back a little bit. You're in line at the grocery store, and you're waiting. And she is not on that little circle that's on the floor (laughter). She needs to get back to that little circle. So go ahead. Let's see.

GHARIB: Ma'am, can we please try to abide by the - can we please try to abide by the pandemic rules, and can you please stay in the circle? I don't know if that sounds good.

SWANN: So here's the thing. So they - abiding by the rules, that's where people - again, you know, that's where folks are going to - more often than not, they feel like they're being chastised, you know?


SWANN: So abiding and rules tells that person that they're breaking the rules, right? So rather than doing that - so let's change your sentence to this. So you turn to her and you say, ma'am, I think it's important that we put a little bit of space between one another, so may I have you step just a few steps back, please?

GHARIB: Wow. I love that. I need to rehearse that.

SWANN: Yeah, just keep practicing. You know, 'cause in your head, you want to say, step back, you know?


SWANN: In your head, you want to say, get up off me. You know, but we don't want to end up on, you know, the latest YouTube or whatever. Yeah.

GHARIB: Oh, no. That's right. I don't want to be a viral video. No, thank you.

SWANN: No, no viral videos welcome here.

GHARIB: So once you do make your lovely, polite ask, what if they say no? What do you do then?

SWANN: If they say no, it's not going to happen. You turn your back, and you do what you can to protect yourself. I'm not going to turn my face towards that person. I'm going to step over a few extra feet. I'm going to cuddle up in this little corner 'cause I only have to be here for a few more minutes, and then I'm out of here. I'm on my way.

GHARIB: Oh, what if a person gets offended and - or not get offended, but they get embarrassed and then they're like, oh, like, and then they start feeling really bad, and then you feel bad because they feel bad? What should you do in that situation because I know people like that?

SWANN: Don't feel bad because they feel bad. They're going to be embarrassed, so just don't take on their embarrassment. Don't own their embarrassment. Let them be embarrassed and go through the process because, eventually, that feeling will pass. You can bring up other things. You can continue on with the conversation while they scramble to get their mask and put it on and they're a little bit embarrassed, you know, because whatever.

It's like telling the person that they have something in their teeth. You know, you cannot take away the embarrassment. You tell them they have something in their teeth. They're embarrassed. You wait and you try to direct everybody's attention to something else while they get the offending piece out of their mouth, right? But you can't take away their embarrassment. So there's nothing you can do. You just let them be embarrassed.

GHARIB: Yeah. So what about some of the - what are some of the trickiest conundrums that you've been asked? Like, and what makes them complicated?

SWANN: So the one that I get often is, what do I do if I see somebody who is not wearing their mask or they're not following the guidelines and they're not following the rules? That's the trickiest one, you know, that people go, what do I do? I'm not quite sure. And my thing is the reason why it's tricky is because you need to mind your business, all right? If their behavior is not affecting you, let it go. I wrote a book called "Let Crazy Be Crazy." And so in this instance, you have to let crazy be crazy and leave people alone.

Folks are getting into these arguments and kerfuffles with people because they're trying to figure out a way to get folks to comply with whatever the guidelines are. Stop trying to do that. For the person who does not want to comply, leave them alone. Let crazy be crazy. The only time you should speak to somebody who is out of line is when their behavior is affecting you personally. So for the person who walks into the store with no mask on, stay away from them, OK? But the person who's jogging or walking in your direction and they don't have the mask on or whatever it is, then you stop and step to the side, let them pass by. So that way, they can take all their, you know, germs with them, right?

And I really believe that people who do not follow rules are not going to somehow change their behavior because you've asked them to do so. They already left the house and made a decision that that's not what they're going to do. So don't make it tricky. Don't make it complicated for yourself. Don't dive into it.

GHARIB: That's great. I like that a lot. When you're planning to see people in person, is it worth it to establish some ground rules ahead of time? How do you have that conversation without coming up as, like, a sort of, like, a - you know, like - I don't know - like, I'm the person of authority, and this is what I think that we should do?

SWANN: So my recommendation is when you're going to get together with somebody, ask them, hey, how do you feel about wearing face coverings? Is that something that you're doing or not? Don't just assume they are. Is it something that you're doing? Are you practicing social distancing? When we get together, is this going to be a social distancing affair? Ask the questions in advance, and then take a moment and step back and assess the situation and ask yourself whether or not you'd like to be involved. So if the person says, no, we're not. We're fine. We've all been around each other the whole time, so I think we're OK - if they say that, because that's what some people feel and that's what they're doing, then that's when you have the opportunity to say, thank you so much for the invitation, but I won't be able to make it.

I really want folks to understand that when an individual has made up their mind about a particular subject, this is not necessarily the time to try to convince them otherwise.


SWANN: Now, people are beginning to have more gatherings at various homes. My recommendation is, initially, talk to the person and say, hey, let's make sure that we still keep our masks on. Let's make sure that we stay in our little sections over here. So you bring it to that person's attention, OK? If that doesn't work, your step two would be to mention it to the host. Hey, you know, I noticed that people are starting to get relaxed with whatever the guidelines have been set forth; I thought I'd bring that to your attention.

So here's where you have your choice. If the host says, oh, that's OK; we're all in the same bubble - no problem; I'm OK with everybody doing that, then that's when you make a decision to either stay or go. If the host says, thank you for the update; I'll make sure to remind everyone, then you can stay there and see if the shift happens. If the shift doesn't happen and you're uncomfortable with the environment, then you want to wrap it up and you leave, and you just say - you know what? - I'm going to go ahead and head on home now. Had a great time. Love you. Don't get on the soapbox and make an announcement and say, nobody's following the rules, you know, and therefore I'm leaving, and slam the door on the way out.

Resist the urge to really try to correct everyone. And the reason why is because on the opposite end of this, we have friendships. We have relationships. We have bonds with people. And we really want to do everything we can right now to be sure that those bonds are intact on the other side of COVID. And if you stand up and announce to everyone at the backyard barbecue that they're not following rules and that the infractions that they are displaying are going to affect everyone and kill everyone in your circle, imagine what that looks like, you know, post-COVID. Now we all have to get back together, and you've told everyone off.


SWANN: So we have to think about that.

GHARIB: OK. So let's recap. If you're out in public and a stranger is too close for comfort and unmasked, weigh if it's worth confronting them. If you're stuck in the situation and think there's a chance they might change their behavior, your best bet is to use words like we and us to show mutual consideration, like let's put a little bit of space between us. And, remember, you have the power to control your own behavior. If someone, for example, isn't cooperating with a request to stay distant, just turn away or walk in a different direction.

Now, for etiquette with people you do know, don't assume everyone is on the same page. Establish ground rules and comfort levels with different activities before meeting up. Now is a time to have those open and direct conversations. And don't feel bad for turning down an invitation. Most of us are navigating this new reality in good faith, and that means trusting our friends and family members to make decisions that keep them safe and comfortable.

It's a lot of new adjustments to grapple with, but to help you remember everything, I drew you a little pocket guide that you can actually print out and fold at home, packed with all this helpful info from Elaine, which you can find on our website, Keep it in your purse, give it to a friend, or print a bunch and pass it out to strangers.

Here's one last bonus piece of advice from Elaine on table manners. If you're dining at an outdoor restaurant or having a picnic at the park, what the heck are you supposed to do with your mask?

SWANN: My recommendation is when you're eating to take the mask off completely. So take it off. Don't have it hanging from one ear. And you can do one of two things with it. You can place it in your bag or purse or pocket - right? - or you can place it on your lap underneath your napkin. The reason why I say this is because if it's on your lap underneath your napkin, it's easily accessible. So this way, let's say, for example, your server comes over to you, you can reach it very quickly and put it back over your face as you're asking, you know, questions or conversing with them. I do not recommend placing the mask on the table because along with etiquette guidelines, nothing should go on the table except for food. So your cellphone, mask, all of that - none of that goes on the table except for food.

GHARIB: There you have it, straight from the etiquette expert herself.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one about how to start a daily art habit. You can find that at And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at

This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Malaka Gharib. Thanks for listening.


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