Etiquette in the Age of COVID

‘Miss Manners’ talks good contagion behavior in new book

By Payne Horning

Even as quarantine orders in all parts of the country are being eased, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains steadfast in its recommendation that people wear face coverings when in public. But that message clearly is not getting through to everyone.

On a recent trip to the store, I noticed several individuals cavalierly shopping without any kind of face mask. Even some of those who were wearing coverings had them on below their nose and mouth. I suppressed the urge to say something to them after having seen several outrageous videos on social media where people who were confronted for not wearing masks lashed out at those around them.

How to address these and other awkward situations that arise in a contagion is the subject of a new book “Miss Manners’ Guide to Contagious Etiquette.” Judith Martin, author of the famous Miss Manners advice column on etiquette that is published in more than 200 newspapers around the world, said she decided to write the book after being flooded with letters from readers.

“People seem to be thrown, understandably, by a world that we’re totally unfamiliar with,” Martin said.

In the book, Martin offers readers creative and refined ways to navigate social interactions in a time of social distancing.

For example, how does one confront those who are being careless about safety guidelines? Rather than telling someone to back off when they are standing closer than six feet from you, express your concern about ‘our’ ability to follow the CDC guidelines on social distancing. Rather than telling someone to sneeze into their elbow, offer them a tissue.

The key, Martin says, is to avoid shaming people publicly.

“Basic law of diplomacy: if you want to persuade someone to do something, you give them a face-saving way to do it,” She said. “You don’t just vilify them.”

Martin’s contagion dos and don’ts guide also addresses how to properly inform guests about a postponed wedding, whether handwritten thank-you notes are still acceptable, how to politely get out of social interactions in a time when you cannot use the excuse that you’re not at home, even how much toilet paper one can display in their bathroom before it becomes gauche due to the product’s limited supply.

Martin, who has been writing about etiquette for nearly 40 years, said this isn’t the first time she’s had to adapt her advice to fit new terrains. There have been other significant cultural changes, like the advent of technology, that put her skills to the test. Regardless of the circumstances, though, the principles Miss Manners espouses remain the same.

“It comes down to how you treat other people and how you wish to be treated,” Martin said. “Decency, good manners, consideration.”

Although good manners may not be something people think they have much time to pay attention to nowadays, Martin said minding one’s manners may actually be more important now than ever. The past few months of quarantine have forced families and roommates to spend more time with each other than ever before. And perhaps more importantly, Martin said kindness and consideration are all the more important in times of stress.

Miss Manner’s Guide to Contagious Etiquette is available as an e-book. For those hungry for more, “Minding Miss Manners in an Era of Fake Etiquette” is also now available in audio, e-book and hardcover.


Miss Manner’s Quick Tips

Don’t shame someone who isn’t following public health safety guidelines. “Reforming strangers only works when it assumes mistaken good will and allows them to comply without enduring public embarrassment, even if they deserve to be ashamed of themselves.”

Lead by example. For example, when others are walking toward you on a narrow sidewalk and you hope to keep six feet apart, “First, move as far as you safely can. Then smile and perform the gesture that a theatrical headwaiter would have to accompany his saying, ‘This way, please, Madam/Sir.’”

Make the most with the many tools we have at our disposal. For example, if you want to thank neighbors and friends who dropped off food and supplies when you were ill, get creative. “Miss Manners is no more suggesting that you scare people by popping up at their doors than she is that you thank them in French. But you can propose to arrange a virtual visit.”

Photo: Judith Martin, author of the famous “Miss Manners” advice column.

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