As we emerge from our pandemic isolation, the world we’re coming back to is far different and more socially confusing than it once was. We’re used to warm hugs, hearty handshakes and big gatherings, which means our new safety-conscious lifestyles are bound to get a little awkward. We asked two etiquette experts – The “Golden Rules Girl” Lisa Grotts and Jodi RR Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting – for some pointers on navigating some of the most common sticky social situations we’ll be facing in our new pandemic reality.

A stranger gets too close at the grocery store

Keep a cool head: You’re shopping, and someone reaches in for the same can of beans or is breathing down your neck in the checkout line. Maybe they don’t even have a mask! Whatever you do, don’t let a snide comment or dirty look escalate the situation. “It’s impossible to avoid people, so you sometimes have to be the one to keep your distance. If someone is getting close, just yield,” Grotts says. “It’s like that immortal ‘Jerry Maguire’ line: Help me help you.”

Don’t presume a negative intent: “This person may have been up all night worrying, and they’re just trying to get milk for their kids, and they drifted,” Smith says.

Try a little levity: If you’re stuck in a place where you can’t do much moving, like in line or in a small space, she suggests using a little levity. “I might say something like, ‘With all of this social distancing, I don’t even know what six feet is anymore!’ Something that brings awareness with kindness,” Smith says.

A friend starts espousing a coronavirus conspiracy theory

Do something, but don’t dwell: Some theories about the pandemic are harmless to discuss and debate, even if you’re not sold on them. If it’s idle (but irritating) chatter, go ahead and change the subject with a pleasant question or anecdote. But if someone keeps bringing up a problematic, damaging or just flat-out wrong train of thought, Smith says you don’t need to keep quiet. Just be mindful of how and when you call someone out.

“I’m of the mind that you shouldn’t let something problematic go unaddressed, but try to be circumspect in addressing it, and then change the subject,” she says. Try something that lets your friend know you regard them highly, like “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were being racist. That’s not like you.” And then, swiftly move the conversation along.

Redirect: Why not just let it go? “In conversation etiquette, the most important thing is to acknowledge what’s going on,” says Grotts. “Acknowledge the line of conversation, and then politely redirect.”

An acquaintance goes in for a handshake

Use your words – and body language: In American culture, we’re programmed to see the refusal of a handshake as the height of rudeness. If you’re staring down the barrel of an unwanted greeting, body language can go a long way in communicating your intent, and words can convey just as much warmth as physical touch.

“I pull both of my hands into a stop sign up to your shoulders, so you’re not pushing them away,” Smith says. “Say, ‘I am so excited to see you.’ The key here is not the words, but the tone of voice. So you’re expressing warmth through tone of voice.”

A little humor can go a long way: “You can spell it out with kindness,” says Grotts. “Say something like, ‘Oh I wish I could shake your hand!’ is a good way to remind people that it’s not accepted right now.”

The conversation among friends seems to focus on one thing: the pandemic

You can’t avoid it, so make the best of it: You’ve gone through the trouble of arranging a small gathering or, miraculously, getting everyone’s Zoom to work at the same time. Why waste quality time talking about the pandemic nonstop?

“It’s hard to avoid, but there are ways to make it more personal and positive,” says Grotts. “In conversation skills, you want to ask questions that have an open answer. Ask how people are. Yes, we know it’s all doom and gloom, but ask how people are planning to spend their summer without traveling or what they’re looking forward to. Life may never be the same, but we can still make plans and talk about the future.”

You’re having a small gathering, but want to set expectations for social distancing

Your house, your rules – but nicely: It’s tempting to let the social distancing dance slide a little bit, and you don’t want to be the wet blanket reminding everyone to be in their personal bubble. But, well, sometimes you have to be. Just follow one of etiquette’s golden rules: Do it with kindness. “It’s your event. You’re the host. You get to decide,” says Smith. “But set expectations in advance.”

Spell out the reasons: If people give you a hard time, spell out reasons for the precautions – whether it’s something general like, “It seems like a lot of people have been testing positive lately,” or a gentle reminder of a vulnerable friend or family member. This will also keep people from feeling as if they aren’t trusted or are being accused of something, Smith says.

A delivery person or neighbor tries to hand you something

Give them exact directions: Someone needs to invent an automatic no-man’s-land for item handoffs, because never before has a package delivery or neighborly exchange of goods been so highly choreographed.

“You want to narrate,” says Smith. ‘Say, ‘Oh that’s wonderful. Just put the box down there and I will get it.’ Take control. Give as much information as possible so that people know expectations.” This is what is known as “preemptive etiquette,” and it can help in a lot of situations where normal unspoken rules suddenly don’t apply. The idea is to give as much information to someone, through words, gestures, or even preliminary correspondence, so that you avoid an awkward situation before it even begins.

You’re invited to a wedding or other gathering and want to wear a mask

Wear it!: No, no one wants photos of masks at their wedding or big celebration. But no one wants a pandemic, either, and that’s what we have. So don’t feel bad about wearing a mask.

“Safety first. Pure and simple,” says Grotts. “Maybe you can wear a fancy one. I wouldn’t think that would be a problem at all. This is going to be around for a while, and a mask is just another precaution.”
Provide it: In fact, hosts should consider providing masks if they can.

“If you’re hosting a special event, you should be everything in your power to be getting masks and communicating that to guests, normalizing the practice and reminding them it will be in place at your gathering,” says Smith.

Your child is invited to a gathering, and you want to ask what kind of social distancing measures will be in place

Make it about your needs, not their behavior: It can be hard to inquire about safety measures without making other parents feel like they’re in the hot seat – or that they’ve somehow been weighed in the balance, and are found wanting. Reduce the risk of upsetting someone by making your requests all about you, rather than what they may or may not be doing.

“You can’t always keep people from being offended, but present it in a kind way,” says Grotts. “We’re trusting others with our lives. Of course that makes people apprehensive. So make it a joke, make it about you. Say, ‘You know what a nervous Nelly I am,’ or ‘You know I worry about these things so of course I have to ask.’ You have to be in control of your own health, and that’s not anyone else’s business.”

Your friends and family think you worry too much about coronavirus safety

Agree: You may be a mask-wearing, social-distancing, coronavirus-avoiding superhero, but that doesn’t mean everyone else chooses to be. Be prepared for a comment or two from friends who don’t see it the way you do, but don’t take it as an invitation to argue. That will rarely end well.

“If someone says they think you’re taking safety measures a little too seriously, you know what? Agree with them,” says Smith. “Say, ‘Yes I am. You can laugh at me all you want, but this is what I am doing to stay safe.’ In a lot of martial arts, you use the another person’s velocity for yourself. Instead of blocking them, you move with them in the same direction. It’s the same with etiquette.”

Here’s the bottom line: It’s never been more clear why it’s so important to show you care about others. Etiquette, believe it or not, exists for the same purpose.

Take this passage, from Dame Barbara Cartland’s Etiquette Handbook:

“It is not really important to know the correct way of addressing an Archbishop, whether a cake should be eaten with the fingers or a fork … But it is important to cultivate an ability to merge with the pattern of one’s fellow human beings without jarring their sensibilities,” she writes.

That’s a tall order, especially when so many of our sensibilities have already been turned upside down.

But with a little kindness and a carefully chosen word or two, we can awkwardly forge our way forward, together.

No handshakes necessary.