Social Distancing Etiquette: How to Politely Stop Someone from Coming Into Your Space
Here's what to do when someone disregards your six-foot boundary.
Whether you're sticking tightly to social distancing guidelines or trying to avoid an awkward hug in a professional situation, stopping someone from invading your personal space is a delicate move. "The answer was always that the handshake is your best friend," says Daniel Post Senning of The Emily Post Institute. "You could really use a handshake to both connect with someone and establish a boundary of a comfortable social distance of about 18 inches. Obviously, that tool is not in our toolbox right now." Instead, use these four simple techniques to keep your distance—without hurting anyone's feelings.
Use your words to set boundaries.
Ideally you'll have the opportunity to talk about your greeting preferences in advance, but if that doesn't happen, speak up in person. "In the absence of the handshake, when we are all navigating much more fluid expectations around introductions, first meetings, greeting, and parting, you prepare to say with your words things you used to say with a common gesture," says Senning. This means explicitly clarifying both your pleasure at seeing someone as well as your adherence to social distancing guidelines. "It's okay to do," he says. "Everyone's having to do it, we've all made slightly different choices about what we're comfortable with, so it's perfectly acceptable, it's polite—it's considerate to let someone know what your boundaries are so they can honor and respect them."
Don't hesitate to break into someone's greeting or sentence if necessary; a gentle "excuse me" or "pardon me" is still an expert-approved way of interrupting someone to remind them to step back. If you're meeting up with one of your more touchy-feely friends, etiquette expert Sharon Schweitzer, founder of Access to Culture, suggests reminding them you'd like to keep your distance before they get too close. "If it is someone who is a hugger or a kisser and you know this in advance, I would tell them about your six-feet rule as you are walking near them, and stop 10 to 12 feet away," she says. "If they continue walking, I would ask for their verbal agreement to your position or start moving away to let them know you are serious."
Diane Gottsman, the founder of The Protocol School of Texas, pairs a friendly greeting with body language that doesn't encourage a hug. "If someone seems to be coming in for a hug or a kiss, or even a handshake, you can put on your biggest smile, and in a polite and clear voice say, 'It's great to see you Sandy! I'm sending you a virtual hug,' as you simulate a hug back to yourself." This type of body language sets a clear boundary. "Your arms are literally folding in rather than towards the other person," says Gottsman. "Or, you can reach straight up, elbows at your side, palms out and say, 'I'm not shaking hands or hugging just yet in light of the virus but it is great to see you!'"
Make the first move.
As you're walking toward the person you are greeting, you can use a simple gesture to preclude an unexpected touch by modeling a contactless greeting. "Use your best 'friend wave,' 'professional wave,' or 'family wave' along with a kind tone of voice appropriate to time and place explaining why you can't hug and kiss during the pandemic," says Schweitzer. "Be sure to have a warm smile with your eyes." No-contact hugs and kisses can also get your point across: "I have discovered that people respond well to faux air kisses—without blowing any air on anyone," she says. "Many people reciprocate and enjoy this approach. Using your arms to give a virtual or 'air hug' has been very well-received by numerous huggers in my southern circle who previously insisted on physical touch."
While physically dodging an unwanted touch may feel awkward in the moment, it's sometimes the best—or only—way to get your point across. "Safety always trumps etiquette, and it's appropriate to step back or to step to the side," says Sharon. "Health officials recommend moving to avoid the physical contact. To be more than six feet away is essential." This technique works during socializing, too, if someone nearby can't maintain a safe distance. "If someone constantly drifts up," says Senning, "something better than sitting there being uncomfortable is telling them, 'I'm much more comfortable if we can keep six feet of distance between us.' It's okay to just back up as you say that. That's a safety thing for a lot of people."