Pandemic Etiquette is Now a Thing

The other day, I was driving to a friend’s place to do a safe food drop-off (she’d just had a baby) when all of a sudden, I felt irrational anger rise up toward someone tailing me a little too close for comfort. I thought to myself, where is this person even going in such a hurry?  

Similar short-fuse stories have cropped up recently. There are the ones from fellow grocery shoppers whose buggies veer too close to encounters with joggers in public spaces. Then there are the problematic social interactions stemming from conspiracy theories and shame-based blame resulting in the new label “covidiot”. 

So, as we are now living in a new heightened reality of personal space and the rules around etiquette are clearly different, we asked Lisa Orr, a Toronto-based etiquette expert for her advice on how to navigate it all.

What Can I Do If I’m Feeling Extra Sensitive To Others’ Behaviours Lately? 

The challenge is that this has all happened so quickly and the guidance on how we should behave from the government has been very confusing. Ultimately, etiquette is about showing respect through your language and behaviour. Even though the method for showing that respect has changed, the purpose hasn’t. Focus on your own behaviour and what your needs are and what makes you feel safe and try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they don’t mean to be “covidiots” but it’s just that they haven’t had learned how to behave appropriately, yet. 

What are some basic etiquette tips to adopt right now? 

Consider wearing a non-medical grade mask in public (and potentially glasses and gloves). It’ll keep you safer and also sends the message that you are taking protection action– an important step we can all take for those who are at even greater risk from getting the virus. For those who want to wear a mask but don’t have one, there are many DIY methods using everyday objects from around your house.  

Give people space – The 6-foot-rule can be tough to navigate particularly in densely populated urban communities and in smaller spaces like grocery stores so it will require you to walk more slowly in some cases, to cross the street or to wait for someone to finish looking at something while they shop.    

Pack your patience and your empathy – This entire situation is frustrating, stressful and anxiety-inducing.  Many have lost jobs, people are working from home, those who are working are working in high-risk environments, children are trying to study at home, finances are stretched, we’re disconnected from our friends and families… the list goes on.  Everyone you interact with is struggling.  So, be patient and kind when interacting with others on the phone, online or in-person as we’re all just trying to make it through this and getting angry and hostile will only make it harder. 

How can those who are more susceptible to getting sick communicate their needs in a courteous way? 

This is a particularly stressful time for those at increased risk from the virus but there are a few do’s and don’ts to make sure people are aware of their needs during this time.   

DO – Model 

Modelling is always a good first step so whatever actions you need others to take you should be modelling them yourself.  Things, like wearing a face mask and keeping extra space, are easy ways to model.   

DO- Be specific when communicating your needs  

Don’t assume people know what your needs are, instead, let them know.  For example, if you need help to get groceries because it’s too risky to go to the store, ask for help from friends or family.  If you need them to wear a mask or gloves or deliver things in a specific way to keep you safe, tell them that.  There’s nothing wrong with advocating for your needs right now and doing so clearly will help make it easier for people to help you. And don’t forget to say thank you, from a distance, there’s never been a better time for a well-written thank you note or phone call of gratitude. 

DON’T – Wear a sign on your back 

I’ve seen people put a sign on their back asking people to keep their distance because they are at increased risk.  The problem with this is that people get closer to read the sign and then occasionally people react the wrong way and react to the sign by getting intentionally too close.  

What is the best way to deal with the following scenarios? 

People invading your 6-foot-space in public or not using practicing adequate hygiene 

Pre-Covid, I would have said to ask politely for more space or to get help from a grocery store staff member if someone is being inappropriate in the store, but with so many people on edge from the stress and anxiety of this crisis, you’re at risk of getting into a confrontation. Instead, protect your own space by moving away. It might not be fair, but the important thing is to keep yourself safe. Wear a mask (and potentially glasses and gloves), wash your hands when you get home, and be aware of others so you can move to give yourself more space if others are getting too close. 

Runners/pedestrians who get too close   

As a runner myself I’ve been really challenged and conflicted by this scenario because I know there are susceptible people in my community and since testing is still limited, no one really knows if they are carrying the virus.   

For pedestrians, stay alert and listen for runners you may have time to move over but because you can’t count on them being considerate. If you are concerned about someone breathing on you, wear a mask, glasses and gloves and avoid touching your face until you get home and wash your hands. 

If you are a runner, you should always give others a wide berth if you are passing or approaching, the 6-foot-rule applies to you too and you may have to adjust your pace or even stop to pass others safely so that you don’t put others at risk. Runners should consider off-peak times and less-crowded routes when possible. 

People who are sharing inappropriate content on social  

I like to give people the benefit of the doubt that there’s no malice when people do this. Engaging in a public setting is not going to do anything but cause an online argument.  Instead of commenting publicly, I might connect with them individually about their post and say that I’d read it and heard something different (i.e. something fact-based) and send them an article with the correct information.  That way it gives them the ability to be informed and change their view without having to feel threatened. If I don’t know them well and they keep posting inappropriate content I would just mute or delete them—it’s not worth the fight and there are more positive ways to direct your energy. 

Needing personal space from your partner while physical distancing 

Communication with your partner in your household is important at all times but it’s CRITICAL right now. We all need time to ourselves and if you’re feeling it, I’m sure your partner is too.  Schedule a time to chat, the way you would an important meeting, so you don’t skip it and make a plan for how you’re going to give each other personal space.  There are a million strategies from the co-working space world, pick what works for you or try a few while you figure it out.  In the end, it’s about being open with your partner about your needs. 

Sharing a home office with someone  

Now that we’ve had a bit of time to adjust and understand what our life inside looks like, it’s a good time to have a meeting and go over everyone’s needs for workspace, for quiet, for downtime, for fitness, etc.  Figure out what’s working and what’s not and then write down a plan.  Allocate time and space to everyone and then revisit your schedule daily.  In our house, we review the play every day at breakfast to adjust for any special needs that day and then at dinner we do a quick debrief so that issues don’t linger, and frustrations don’t fester. 

Do you have any other etiquette advice for helping people adapt? 

Focus on your own behaviour, recognize that most Canadians are doing a great job following the new rules and to try not to worry too much about the outliers that aren’t doing their part.  Remind yourself that as a group, we have done an incredible job adapting quickly to our new rules of etiquette. 

The new list of things we’ve learned is long and challenging: keeping a physical distance from others; only socializing with members of your own household; only going out shopping when you absolutely must; wearing a mask when you can’t stay physically distant, and not playing in public parks.  By working together, we are getting safer every day and with time it will get easier for everyone to behave in a respectful way in their community. –Tania Kwong 

One of Canada’s most recognized etiquette experts, Lisa founded Orr Etiquette in 2013 to help bring civility back to Canadians. Although a life-long Torontonian, Lisa has had the benefit of diverse international, professional, academic and personal experiences in the world of etiquette and protocol that allow her to bring a real world perspective to her work. Lisa’s programs are not what you might think of when you think of etiquette. Her programs are not stuffy or boring but completely interactive with a real emphasis on acquiring modern skills using best in class educational tools for adults and young people. Her focus is on practical applicable etiquette skills that allow her clients to eat and greet with style and confidence wherever they are in the world.

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