Graceful communication in covid times
October 10, 2020 10:56 AM   Subscribe

As every reader of Miss Manners knows, it's rude to point out the rudeness of others. But what about when someone is being pandemically rude?

I am trying to figure out the proper way to handle a few kinds of mundane situations where someone's behavior is bugging me in covid-related ways.

- I'm talking with someone for a while and they're standing too close, and when I adjust they get closer again.
- I'm talking with someone for a while and they remove their mask for some reason without asking.
- I discover that someone who should be quarantining (on the basis of recent contact with a known positive), isn't.

I've had all of these things happen to me recently with people who consider themselves cautious. We're not talking anti-mask zealots, we're talking well-meaning liberals who have simply failed their self-reflection roll (my neighborhood is roughly 95% this sort of person by volume and I am sure I am sometimes one of them on other issues). I haven't known what to say in the moment, and so have not addressed the situation with any of them. I feel certain that I should figure out how to handle this -- at the very least, in the last situation -- but I am really uncertain about how to do it without coming across as Judgey McJudgerson. One of these people is a friend I wouldn't want to lose. Another is a merchant with whom I'd like to keep doing business.

This must have come up for most of us at some point by now. How have you all handled it? How badly am I overthinking this plate of beans?
posted by eirias to Human Relations (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've done it when we were waiting for takeout food to the woman behind the counter ("That's supposed to cover your nose, too") but that wasn't anyone I know personally. She looked pissed but pulled it up.
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock at 11:00 AM on October 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Anyone who was not my friend I would just try to get away from. If it was a friend or I was forced into contact I would say: I’m so sorry, would you mind (putting on a mask, keeping your distance) I have a lot of anxiety about this, thank you for understanding.

For me that’s the easiest way to avoid making them feel judged. Maybe they should be judged but it gives me stress to point that out. I would just ask them to do what would make you feel comfortable.
posted by pairofshades at 11:01 AM on October 10, 2020 [20 favorites]

At the end of the day you don't actually need to be in these people's good graces, and if you think they may retaliate violently you should just remove yourself from the situation, but for the in-between cases:

"Hey, give me 6 feet please?"
(after stepping back) "Can you keep your mask on please?"
(say nothing and end the friendship because they're bad people and should face consequences for the rest of their lives)

I'll be quite honest, with the first two I actually end my request with "my mom's on chemo" (she isn't and also she lives 2500 miles away) because apparently half this country are sociopaths who can't relate to information unless it affects them directly and for whatever reason, "someone's mom" is usually good enough. If it makes them think for an actual second, great.

For the third person, if they're pushing for contact or not properly obtaining your consent before close contact, you should get away and then tell them you'll see them when the pandemic is over but not before then. I guess let them figure out they're the bad guy here. I don't know why you want to be friends with people like that, but at the very least set boundaries so they can't kill you even if they want to.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:15 AM on October 10, 2020 [18 favorites]

I would reframe this from you telling them what they're doing wrong or rude, to you telling people what you need.

"I need you to give me more space"
"I need you to keep your mask on, please"
"I can't see you so soon after a known contact. I can see you next Friday, but not earlier"

Expressing your needs is not rude. Just keep it focused on what you can or will or won't do, and not what they should do.

In this day & age I think we sadly just can't tell people to quarantine. It's just not happening right now, from Patient 0's examples on down. You can socially pressure (as in the last response) but if they don't get the message from there .... we've given that up as a society. Maybe we'll get it right in the next lifetime, but we're here now. All you can do is control your own environment.
posted by Dashy at 11:17 AM on October 10, 2020 [23 favorites]

They're not rude, they're willfully ignoring scientific advice and putting others in danger by being lazy and irresponsible.

Here are things I've said recently to people I know to be liberal:
"It goes over your nose." [point at face]
"Hey man back up, we've got a pandemic here."
"No I will not open my door, where is your mask, what do you want."
"No one came to your barbeque because it's fucking irresponsible, stop whining about people not hanging out with you."

Probably very few people in my life would accuse me of being polite, but I am way the hell over the casual "oh I'm not as bad as some people so it's fine for me" crap.
posted by phunniemee at 11:18 AM on October 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

1 and 2: "Hey, sorry to interrupt but we all have different comfort levels about covid stuff right now. I don't mean to be rude but I'd love it if you could stand a little further from me/keep your mask on, thanks. Ok, where were we?" I find it's good to be more apologetic than you feel if you can muster it, just to lubricate social interactions. I imagine my inner monologue would be "wtf is wrong with you; do you not read the fucking news?" But the social contract often requires less than full honesty.

#3 is a much bigger conversation and I don't have an easy answer for it. It'll depend a lot on the relationship with the person who's being unsafe.
posted by less of course at 11:25 AM on October 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

#1 - The first time you adjust, you could say something like, "Oops, it looks like we've been getting closer to each other without noticing it; we probably should try to stay 6 feet apart." Repeat if they move closer again.

#2 - The approach pairofshades suggests is probably best. "I doubt you have covid right now, so it's probably pretty safe for you to have your mask off, but I find I get really anxious around anyone without a mask. Would you be okay with putting it back on?"

#3 - "You don't think you should be quarantining after finding out Sue tested positive?" Yeah, you might sound a little judgey, but I doubt the other person would find it rude or unjustified. They'll surely understand why people might be judging them.
posted by Redstart at 12:09 PM on October 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

There's a difference between being rude and possibly infecting others with a potentially deadly disease.

If someone doesn't want to follow protocols to preventing infection, they're basically walking up to you with both middle fingers extended.

Person one: "Don't forget to keep socially distancing. Do you need me to be speaking louder?"
Person two: "Put your mask back on, please" with a look.
Person three: "Why the hell aren't you quarantining if you were in contact with X person?"with a look of incredulity and shock.
posted by sciencegeek at 12:20 PM on October 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

Yeah, this isn’t about manners or etiquette, but safety. “I need some more space, thanks” is fine. “Mask up, please, thanks.”

Don’t prioritize folks’ feelings over your safety.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:30 PM on October 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I just also wanna note that I think a lot of people are kind of clueless. I am not neurotypical and I forget shit even though I’m being very careful about pandemic-related stuff. Well, as careful as my brain allows me to be and on most days that’s pretty careful. Before I moved I went on frequent walks with another ADHD person and periodically we would find ourselves too close together (3 or 4 feet instead of 6 or 8) and whoever noticed it first would mention it and we would pull apart again.

I think Dashy has the best approach. Make it about your comfort levels and your needs and not about pretending you know what’s in the minds of the people you’re dealing with. Several months ago a stranger approached me asking for directions and I backed up and she would follow me until finally I stopped the conversation and asked her to back away and give me more space and then I would help her. And she did. For the longest time it was very hard for me to be a passenger in a car and sometimes I needed to ask the driver to slow down and I always prefaced it by saying that riding in cars was hard for me, and I knew that this person was a good driver but I would be very grateful if they could slow down a bit to help me out. They almost always did and kindly.

Most people who are being assholes are unaware that they are being assholes. There are obvious exceptions but I just think that if you assume good faith and ask for what you need and make it clear that it’s about what you need and not that they are being assholes, you will get better results. That has been my experience, at least. I wish you all the best in taking care of your health.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:14 PM on October 10, 2020 [18 favorites]

Manners exist to smooth social interactions, make them predictable so the greatest amount of people can have socially pleasant or neutral interactions. It's rude to point out someone being rude because you're breaking the entire purpose of manners, you're making the interaction uncomfortable for both of you.
Mask wearing and social distancing is not about being polite, though it may be polite to wear a mask. Pointing out (using manners!) that someone please respect your boundaries or risk analysis is not rude because you're not calling out a breach of etiquette, but instead requesting safety (as everyone above has pointed out!) Not saying "please" makes a social situation abrasive, unpredictable or awkward; not respecting physical needs makes a social situation dangerous or literally impossible to continue.
posted by zinful at 1:54 PM on October 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I am slightly hard of hearing. I can lip read subconsciously. In these covid times, with people wearing masks and standing far away, I am having a hard time hearing ordinary conversation. In the first scenario. I I might move closer without thinking as a natural way to hear you better than I am. I think a simple reminder, "I am doing the 6'thing. Do you mind if I back up?" would not be offensive to me. The second scenario with the merchant, you could just be plain and simple with them. "I am doing the mask on completely thing for reasons. Could you please pull your mask on at least until I leave?"

The last scenario is difficult. No matter what you say, you will come across as the quarantine police. If you are ok with that, just tell them to Quarantine. If not, just avoid them like the plague (sorry).
posted by AugustWest at 3:05 PM on October 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Co-sign the idea of framing this around your needs, but I'd like to add some nuance around this suggestion:

"I need you to give me more space"
"I need you to keep your mask on, please"

"I need you to X" is a hair's breadth from a direct command, putting you in the position of authority and the other person in the role of subordinate. My boss tells me "I need you to make five copies of this" and I do it: I am required to meet his (photocopy) needs because he signs my paycheck. This is a specific power dynamic that does not exist with a friend or a community social relationship that you want to maintain.

Try this instead:

"I need to make sure I stay six feet away, so I'm going to step back a little bit"
"I need to pay careful attention to being safe and staying well, would you mind wearing your mask? Or we could go outside/stand further apart/do a FaceTime..."

You're centering your need and offering a suggestion about how the situation can change to meet that need, but you're not assuming the authority to command the other person's behavior.
posted by mccxxiii at 3:09 PM on October 10, 2020 [19 favorites]

I'll be honest with you: I am trying to avoid seeing people in person BECAUSE it is just too easy to end up creeping closer to people in conversation. It's antisocial and the antithesis of what we did in the beforetimes to have to treat everyone like they have cooties and I feel like shit doing it. Either I give up or I have to keep asking them over and over and over again to back up or stay away or don't get closer and hoping they don't get offended.

My mom is a natural boundary pusher (my therapist is all, she gets off on that) and the one time I saw her I just had to keep saying OVER AND OVER AND OVER no to hugs, no to going out to lunch, please put a mask on, please don't hand me your garden hose.... This is why she's gotten to see me once and I don't know what I am gonna do when she inevitably drops by my house soon to drop stuff off or whatever.

One suggestion I haven't tried personally but someone brought up to me: It might work better if both of you have lawn chairs and park farther enough away while seated that it's not as easy to keep creeping closer and closer and not noticing. Or just find some kind of natural barrier (fence, street, what have you) that kind of draws the barrier FOR you, which has worked for me. Like if you're talking from literally across the street, you shouldn't be creeping closer to get hit by cars.

As for #3, I'm with dashy: There's nothing you can do about the non-quarantiners except avoid them, unfortunately. If you find out while they are live action in front of you, I guess you'd just have to leave for your own safety. Even Miss Manners has said to give up on asking people to wear masks because they won't and they might kill you.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:08 PM on October 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Mostly for no 2, I have found it pretty useful to start saying, in a cheery voice, "oh, let's keep our pants up" or some variation, while miming that I'm really talking about their mask.

If the audience is good-intentioned, they'll find it funny and comply. If the audience is ill-intentioned (anti-masker or otherwise) they're usually subtly shamed into compliance equating running around without a mask on is like running around without pants on. It's a soft enough shaming that it tends to work (I had a three week stint working a job with a really low rate of mask compliance, and this helped).
posted by furnace.heart at 4:23 PM on October 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

Some recent episodes of the Awesome Etiquette by Lizzo Post and Dan Post Senning (descendants of Emily Post) actually cover some of these topics and provide sample scripts.
posted by raccoon409 at 4:24 PM on October 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, in some jurisdictions you can tell the local health department that someone isn’t following quarantine guidelines (and NC there is technically a law to enforce quarantine and isolation orders). Oftentimes this means they’ll send an epi team in while wearing full PPE. In other places it’s basically like calling the cops so I wouldn’t do that.
posted by raccoon409 at 4:27 PM on October 10, 2020

Just cough. Hard. I also find that loudly growling makes those people move away quickly. I have zero patience or tolerance for anyone threatening my health with their lack of awareness, or outright stupidity.
posted by dbiedny at 4:31 PM on October 10, 2020

Best answer: Plenty of good advice for framing it as a "me" thing but I think there's an argument to be made for "we" framing—we are, after all, all in the same pandemic, even if some of us are inclined to be blithe about it. In cases where you suspect carelessness, I'd be inclined to go with "whoops, we're supposed to be six feet apart!" or "we should both have masks on!" or something similar. I wouldn't want to imply that they're doing you a favor or accommodating your unreasonable needs, and by the same token I wouldn't want to imply (though I might strongly think) that they don't understand science or are willfully ignoring public health. Rather, we are ALL currently doing each OTHER the service of following best practices, and while sometimes we all forget, of course we all mean to remember, right? (Obviously we do not, but the "of course we all mean to do the decent thing" approach tends to work well in the moment, since people are influenced by immediate social expectations.)
posted by babelfish at 5:03 PM on October 10, 2020 [13 favorites]

My partner is terminally ill and at a huge risk if he gets COVID-19. Nonetheless, he is constructed for socializing and has an awful time remembering that he's at risk of death from an invisible thing. I had to say to him when we were socially-distanced-hanging-out with someone, "You're backing them into the corner of the yard, honey." He jumped, laughed and moved back. So maybe a humorous but truthful observation.
posted by Peach at 7:17 AM on October 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think #1 and #2 are good use cases for pretending that you're the weird one to allow the other person to save face. "Hey, I'm going to take a step back so we can keep 6ft of distance--I'm being extra careful!" or "Hey, do you mind putting your mask back on? I know I'm a little extra paranoid about covid but my personal rule is only socializing with masks!" In these cases, often both you and the other person know that you're not the weird or paranoid one, but it's just a little bit of social lubricant.

My approach to #3 has mostly been staying out of it, to be honest. If I found out that I was talking indoors in close proximity to someone whose close contact had a confirmed case, I would probably leave and make a plan to get tested, but I've mostly managed to avoid this by only socializing outside and masked except with my immediate family. I assume other people are going to make bad decisions and they're none of my business. It seems more productive to get angry with our genocidal government that chose murdering 200K rather than accommodating the slightest inconvenience, rather than regular people just trying to stay sane.
posted by capricorn at 11:24 AM on October 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

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