Handshakes. Reassuring pats on the arm. Warm and welcoming smiles. So many of the traditions and gestures we’ve always relied on to convey kindness and goodwill are out of bounds now due to COVID-19.
And not everyone is on the same page when it comes to pandemic protocols, which can make for some uncomfortable situations. What do you do when you’ve been painstakingly social distancing for a year and a half and a stranger swoops in to shake your hand? How does one politely request that someone put on a mask? Can you wait for an empty elevator without offending anyone?
These are the unchartered waters in which we find ourselves drowning. Luckily, Little Rock’s undisputed queen of all that is right and proper is here. As director of the Little Rock Junior Cotillion since 1986, Kathleen Joiner has helped an untold number of Central Arkansas youth achieve grace and polish. In this time of uncertainty, adults are equally in need of her deft advice on how to navigate an awkward new world.
Joiner offers this thoughtful, sensible advice to keep us as healthy and as at ease as we might hope for in 2021.
The No. 1 rule doesn’t change
First of all, since pre-pandemic social graces have been turned upside down, we should remember that the basis for all good manners is treating others like they want to be treated, with kindness and respect. That said, we now are having to say and do things that would have been unusual or even rude two years ago. Actions like refusing invitations because attendees will not be masked, not shaking hands, passing on a full elevator and asking someone to give you more space can be uncomfortable.
You can be safe and respectful at the same time
Everyone should be honest about their cautions and needs — your safety is paramount. However, taking care of yourself should be done with respect to the other person. You can accept the other person’s status and then modify your own behavior. Do not get angry at them or preach to them. Just do what you need to do to keep yourself safe. A gentle reminder like, “Oops, it looks like your mask has slipped,” may help. If not, move on unless their actions are causing harm to you or others. Then, you should ask a manager or employee to handle it.
About that handshake
If an unmasked person wants to shake hands, say “I am still not hugging or shaking hands, but it is so good/great/wonderful to see you.” If someone is standing too close to you, say, “I am still distancing, so I will stand back.” Always put the modified behavior on you and don’t blame the others for not following the rules. This is often hard to do, because unvaccinated people not wearing masks are perceived by others as a threat to society.
Vaccines: do ask, do tell
A few years ago, no one would think of asking about a person’s vaccinations. Now it is OK to ask. Try saying, “May I ask if you have been vaccinated?” Their answer will tell you what you need to know to make the correct decision for you and yours. Now it is gracious to ask, “Are you comfortable eating inside?” or “May I take my mask off?” The responses will tell you what to do.
Etiquette is more adaptable than you might expect
Like science, etiquette rules are not static. They change with the times and location. Most likely, new etiquette rules will come out of this time and old ones will fade away. One example is the handshake. The older generation will likely return to handshakes when safe. Younger generations may continue the pandemic ways of greeting — hand over the heart, friendly wave, namaste, self-hugs and more. Masks will continue to be worn by some even when/if COVID is conquered. We realized that there was less flu and allergies when people wore masks.
When in doubt, remember the platinum rule
Good manners are a guide to how we should act and treat others; not a way to judge others. You have heard many times that we can’t control what happens to us, but we can control our reactions. We should always be respectful and kind. And always follow the platinum rule: Treat others the way they want to be treated.