Here's how to politely cancel plans or greet someone from six feet away.

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Social distancing ourselves from loved ones and acquaintances alike has become our new normal in a matter of weeks. Until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, hugging our old friends, exchanging a handshake with a new one, or even stepping into a neighbor's apartment to drop off mail are off limits. It can feel jarring—suddenly, these instinctive behaviors we've practiced since infancy are now dangerous.

Young Woman Walking Down Supermarket Aisle
Credit: Getty / Tom Werner

When our way of life changes this drastically, it dregs up questions. How do we perform simple greetings, like saying hello to a neighbor from across the street? What do we say to a family member who still thinks it's okay to host a movie night at their place? To answer these queries, we spoke to Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. Ahead, she shares her insight into what COVID-19 etiquette looks like as we do our best to keep each other safe.

Safety comes first.

Have you been invited to a small gathering since social distancing measures were announced? If so, you likely felt uncomfortable. After all, how do you politely decline an offer and attempt to educate a friend at the same time? Gottsman, however, says being frank is best, since safety comes first. "There are very clear and specific social distancing guidelines discussed (almost hourly) in the media, so it would be difficult for someone to say they're not aware," she explains. "The bottom line is this: It's each of our responsibilities to protect the health of ourselves, our family, friends, and those living  in our community."

So, if a friend of yours asks you to head to their home for your weekly happy hour—an off-limits activity during social distancing—don't worry about hurting their feelings. "Don't feel the need to explain, apologize, or make up an excuse for declining. You can be honest but polite," she says, noting that it's just as valid to offer an educative moment with a statement like, "We are all staying home right now and taking social distancing very seriously. It's a scary time and we are not taking any chances."

Keep your hands by your sides during greetings.

If you don't have coronavirus symptoms and can safely go for walks or perform essential tasks, you may run into people you know. And since these changes to our way of life are relatively new, you may understandably (and accidentally) attempt typical behavior; it's normal to want to approach and greet them with a hug—but that's not safe for either of you.

Instead, Gottsman says, "Keep your distance. Everyone understands [this reality] and is thinking the same thing at this time. You can say, 'Hi, good to see you,' but make no forward motion with your hands or arms." This way, the other person won't instinctively reach out to you, either. "If you feel you need to do something," Gottsman says, "gesture with your arms towards yourself, as if you are simulating a self hug."

Respect boundaries on social media.

We're relying more and more on social media and virtual communication these days—and understandably so. Everyone has instantly become more available, and if you know your loved ones are also sitting at home, it's easy to assume that they are always up for a chat. But if you don't like the pressure of being constantly available, don't assume your friend does. "Some people may not want to be so connected. They may be busy taking care of their family, or they may just want to just relax and be still. You can invite them to join a chat but respect their decision to decline," explains Gottsman.

We're all feeling overwhelmed, so maintaining these kinds of boundaries is important—and so is supporting each other with these forms of communication. "Don't forget the value of a simple phone call," she says. "Hearing someone's voice can be a spirit lifter. So many people are feeling isolated and alone, and a phone call from a friend or family member may be the only communication they have all day."

Comments (2)

Anonymous
January 26, 2021
Any thoughts on how to welcome new neighbors who just moved in? Just had someone move in next door. Should we leave a letter or cookies or something to introduce ourselves? I would normally head over and say hi but want to keep distance etc. Crazy times. in southern cali 01.2021
Anonymous
January 26, 2021
Any thoughts on how to welcome new neighbors who just moved in? Just had someone move in next door. Should we leave a letter or cookies or something to introduce ourselves? I would normally head over and say hi but want to keep distance etc. Crazy times. in southern cali 01.2021