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Pandemic Etiquette: Navigating Awkward Conversations

While things like hugging and sharing food were normal behaviors a few months ago, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed social interaction. After months of staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people are now finding it tricky to adhere to safety guidelines in many social situations, leading to some awkward conversations with friends and family.

Our healthcare providers are no strangers when it comes to difficult and uncomfortable conversations, so we’ve asked them to share how they would handle tough COVID-19-related social situations. Here are some strategies you can employ when confronting friends, family, and even strangers about their social distancing and mask-wearing practices:

When a stranger gets too close to you

If you are in line at a grocery store or in another public setting and someone comes within your six foot bubble, your first instinct may be to snap or yell. Instead of immediately getting upset with this person for not following safety guidelines, try not to presume malicious intent. “Change your mindset and remember that this person is likely coming too close by accident,” says Michael Richardson, MD. “Bring the spacing issue to their attention and let them know you are very anxious about COVID-19 and the spacing helps you feel safe.” Most people are consumed with their own thoughts and actions as they move through public spaces, so it’s likely they aren’t aware of how close they are to you and are just trying to navigate the setting as best as possible. Try to remember that everyone has different levels of comfortability and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you feel inclined to say something, do so with respect and humility, rather than shaming them for their behavior. Instead of accusing the other person of doing something wrong, express your own feelings and concerns about the situation. People are less willing to comply and more likely to get defensive if they feel like they are being lectured or judged.

When a friend or family member goes in for a handshake, hug, or kiss

While it may feel impolite to deny one of these greetings, you can still do so respectfully. “Use body language by holding out your hand like you’re stopping traffic to halt the other person in their tracks,” says Richardson. “You can then apologize for not returning their embrace and instead reframe it as something you are still not quite ready for given the pandemic.” Recoiling backwards or stepping back in shock may make the other person feel rejected or less welcomed. Instead, try opting for an elbow or first bump. You can also save the other person some embarrassment by verbally expressing your excitement to see them.

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