Pandemic etiquette guide: How to be polite while keeping your distance and socializing safely

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  • Life during the coronavirus pandemic has a new set of rules, and it can be difficult to manage them socially.
  • Business Insider spoke to lifestyle and etiquette expert Elaine Swann about how to navigate all of the new social situations we’re facing.
  • It’s important to be direct and flexible with friends you want to see. Be careful to avoid suggesting activities that may make them uncomfortable.
  • If someone invites you to a gathering you think is unsafe, respectfully decline and don’t debate them about it — assume they already have enough information that they’ve just ignored.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It’s fair to say that things have changed a little in the past few months.

Pre-pandemic, things like offering a hug or sharing a snack were little gestures of goodwill. Today, however, both of those would be seen at best as an awkward position to put the recipient in, and, at worst, as a possible accelerant for contagion.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed how we work, how we relax, and — as restrictions begin to ease, for better or worse — how we interact with one another. 

As people begin to emerge from their homes into a pandemic summer, the rules of conduct and etiquette have changed. Things like grabbing a drink with a friend can become a minefield. Are you comfortable with their level of distancing? Who have they been seeing? Is it safe to go to their home or to go to a patio restaurant? And how do you even begin to ask them all of these questions politely?

To get some answers, Business Insider spoke to lifestyle and etiquette expert Elaine Swann, the founder of the Swann School of Protocol, on how to respectfully navigate the new world of quarantine etiquette.

Above all, clear communication is important — and being upfront about your own circumstances.

When the severity of the pandemic first became clear, “I had said it was going to be very important for us to verbalize our desires more so than any anything,” Swann said. “And I still believe the same thing.”

Here’s her advice for navigating different pandemic situations politely and safely.

How to gauge a friend’s comfort level with an activity — and invite them to join you

If you want to see your friends at a distance, you’re not alone. With some states in different stages of reopening — or closing back down — you or your friends may not feel comfortable with different activities.

For those who like to invite friends to fun activities, you’ll need to be more flexible and open when it comes to making plans.

“My recommendation is to ask the other person how they feel about whatever it is,” Swann said. “For example, if you do want to go out to eat for a restaurant, or you do want to hike on a trail, ask them first instead of inviting them.”

Key here is not using leading language. We’ve all probably experienced — or been guilty of asking — a question that already has a desired answer. But that’s not how you should approach pandemic social events.

“Here’s an example you can say, ‘You know, I was thinking about getting together this weekend. I’d like to know how you feel about going out to restaurants right now.’ Period. And let them talk,” Swann said.

That way you won’t be steamrolling your friend into something they’re uncomfortable with, and can also learn a little bit more about where they’re at.

If you’re invited to an event that makes you feel uncomfortable, just decline it and don’t try to debate the hosts

If someone invites you to a hot tub party or a buffet, you don’t have to go. Just decline the invitation, Swann says — and don’t try and futilely correct them with public health facts.

“Don’t correct people on doing things in their own home,” Swann said. “Let crazy be crazy.”

And if their gathering is flouting rules of social distancing or CDC guidelines, it’s not worth your time to correct them.

“If a person is ignoring all of the information that’s been shared, it’s highly unlikely that there’s anything you’ll be able to say to convince them otherwise,” Swann said. “So do not waste your time, just decline the invitation.”

And what if you accept an invitation to a gathering that you think is safe, but makes you uncomfortable when you arrive?

Let’s say you’ve made a plan with one or two friends for a distanced hangout in the park. And when you arrive one of them mentions they brought a roommate, who is bringing their two friends, and one of those friends is bringing their boyfriend, who lives with an essential worker.

Suddenly the hangout you safely planned looks a lot different — and you may not feel comfortable staying.

In that case, Swann said that you should “bow out gracefully.”

“Don’t make a big scene when you do it, don’t make an excuse,” Swann said. “Don’t be evasive … if you initially were going to stay there the entire time, you can say, ‘I thought that I was going to be able to stay longer, but I’m going to have to cut my time short.’ And that’s the very honest truth.”

Swann added that you can always follow up with anyone you’re particularly close with afterwards and offer a detailed explanation. But in the moment, just take your leave.

If you’re planning your own socially distanced gathering, try and making distancing fun for everyone involved

For those who may be considering a socially distant gathering for the holiday, Swann recommends incentivizing everyone to follow safety precautions. She said that beyond hosts individualizing things like food portions and beverages, they should reward guests for abiding by social distancing.

“Make it fun, whether it’s some sort of game or prize or gift card, or adding up points to get a gift card or prize at the end,” Swann said. “Do something to that effect so that the reminder to stay socially distant has more of a prize attached to it as opposed to shaming someone into compliance.”

And, if anyone isn’t abiding by those rules, provide them with discreet reminders — remind them that you all trust one another and want to do the right thing. 

“You just want them to change their behavior,” Swann notes. “You don’t have to change their mind, change their behavior.”

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