Nail down a few ground rules ahead of time to ensure everyone is comfortable.

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Gathering on front porch
Credit: Getty / Thomas Barwick

Clarifying your stance on social distancing has become an increasingly common—and potentially uncomfortable—conversation, especially as small gatherings resume across the country. Here, Daniel Post Senning, the great-great grandson of Emily Post and a modern etiquette expert, offers a few straightforward guidelines for keeping yourself safe and your friendships intact during this uncertain time.

Set your boundaries.

Good etiquette always means being clear about what you can and can't do, says Post Senning, and that's true whether you're responding no to a birthday invitation or gently letting a dinner party host know in advance that you're allergic to nuts. "In the world of etiquette, there's something really generous about letting people know what your boundaries are," he says. And whether you're discussing your switch to a vegan diet, your son's need to leave his soccer game early, or your preference for socializing while wearing a mask, you shouldn't put off having that conversation. "The more work you can do ahead of time, the better," says Post Senning. "You want to make your expectations explicit in a time when we don't have the structure of our social expectations to lean on. We are navigating new information, and not everybody is making the same choices. The more you can communicate, the better. The earlier those conversations happen, the better. The more open and candid they are, the better."

Address the details.

If you're hosting a get-together, it's your responsibility to make the social distancing boundaries clear to all your guests—and you can set them up in whatever way makes you most comfortable. For a more casual gathering, like meeting for an outdoor picnic or joining a few friends for a hike, you'll need to be more open-minded. "You can put your ideas on the table, tell people about how you like to handle those sorts of things, but you have to also prepare yourself for the other organizers to have perspectives and opinions," says Post Senning. "When you're not taking the responsibility, you have to be a little more sharing in terms of the decision making."

Some of the most important topics to address before you meet up, he says, include whether you'll require masks, if your group will gather inside or outside, whether you'll share a car, how physically close you're willing to get, if you'll share food, and what the expectations are for getting kids in your group to follow the guidelines. "I don't feel like it should be a checklist—you can accomplish a lot of it pretty quickly," he says. Mentioning that you're taking social distancing seriously, offering a self-deprecating joke about your strict rules against hugging, or reminding a friend that you have an immunocompromised parent can make your stance clear sans any awkwardness.

Stick to your own personal rules.

When you are invited to an event where you know in advance that the social distancing boundaries don't match your own, it's perfectly fine to decline—so long as you let the host know. "It can feel awkward, but sometimes 'no' is the most important information you can give someone," says Post Senning. "You don't have to go, but you do have to respond to an invitation." If you're already at the event and realize people aren't following the agreed-upon practices, you can also leave without breaking any etiquette rules; excuse yourself to the host and slip out without making a scene. "I always like to say that safety supersedes etiquette," he says. "If someone's had too much to drink, you get over that awkward moment. You say something, drive them home, make up a bed, or take their keys if you have to. Safety is a baseline."

Using your feelings of personal responsibility can help you decide what your social distancing boundaries are and make it easier to stick to them—even when your friends and family members feel differently. "Remind yourself that safety is the ground we stand on, and however you feel about it, you want to be really respectful of where they're coming from and the decisions they're making—and that we're all being forced to make," says Post Senning.

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