social distancing sign

Health experts advise it. The governor says we should do it. Signs are posted informing everyone of what's expected.

But when it comes to keeping 6 feet from each other due to the coronavirus pandemic, not everybody seems to have gotten the message.

So what do you do in public when someone gets too close for comfort?

Be polite, say those in the etiquette business.

Jill Garner, who directs Manners of the Heart, which teaches respect and civility in schools, said any interaction should begin with the assumption that the offending party isn’t acting out of ill will. Having that attitude will help you approach them in a way that doesn’t provoke a bad reaction.

“The old rule is that 93% of communication is facial expression, body language, tone of voice," Garner said. "Your communication is only 7% words in face-to-face interactions.”

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From The Emily Post Institute comes these words of wisdom: "… safety comes before etiquette. This doesn’t mean we toss consideration, respect and honesty out the window."

Wearing a mask and observing distance rules are good manners, said April Palombo Setliff, who founded the Red Stick Refinement etiquette training business. Regardless of whether you think the rules are necessary, obeying them shows respect for others, she said. 

“Ask what would be kind to another person or considerate or respectful, and do that thing,” Setliff said.

Confronting someone needs to be done carefully. Making eye contact is important, Garner said. Sometimes, that and a simple nod might be enough to get someone to back off. If not, she said, choose your words carefully.

After all, not everyone is taking kindly to the new normal, as evidenced by many who show up without masks at rallies aimed at getting government to reopen businesses.

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“You can always say, ‘Don’t you hate having to keep our distance at this time?’” Garner said. “Make it more lighthearted, but at the same time, you’re getting your point across, and you’re saying it with the expectation that they just forgot in the moment, just haven’t formed a new habit yet. I think that would help it come across the way that you intend it to.”

Setliff said if someone is right behind you, politely step away.

“Maybe you could say something like, ‘Excuse me, I’d like to keep my distancing for both of our well-beings.’ If you come up with a saying that’s a win-win for both people involved, the other person swallows it a little better … than saying, ‘Back off!’”

Other suggestions from experts include:

For strangers: “I know it’s challenging when we’re in a public space, but I’m trying to practice social distancing. Would you mind giving me some additional space? I’m trying to keep the vulnerable people in my life as safe as possible. Thank you for understanding.”

For friends: “I wish I could have you and the gals over for book club, but right now I have to make my health and the health of others a priority, and I would feel terrible if we got one another sick.”

For family: “I want to catch up with you too, but your health is really important to me. In the spirit of social distancing, let’s schedule a FaceTime or Skype tonight instead. I can show you how to set it up if you’re not sure how.”


Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.