Miss Manners' Etiquette Lessons for Contagious Times

Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin, has long been known as the voice of authority on all things etiquette. While what seems normal in today's society may be very different from what it was just a few short months ago before COVID-19 swept the planet, the social graces are still essential—if only as a way to keep some sense of order and sanity when all else seems out of kilter. In this excerpt from her new book, Miss Manners' Guide to Contagious Etiquette, columnist and author Martin, along with her adult children Nicholas and Jacobina, take on the challenges of maintaining polite interactions among people who really want to stick their (ideally well-covered) noses into others' business in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Of what purpose or relevance is etiquette in a time of social distancing? Miss Manners has long suffered from the popular misconception of etiquette as pertaining only to "society" in the sense of the rich and frivolous, and the illusion that normal people behave naturally. There is nothing like social distancing to serve as a reminder that society means all of us, and that behaving like our better selves benefits everyone.

Public Health Vigilantes

Minding other people's business, which has always been a major etiquette hazard, has taken on the noble mantle of ministering to public health. To the extent that people are out and about, there are also vigilantes who are vehemently scolding strangers, if not making citizens' arrest.

The rationale is that etiquette is suspended in an emergency.

Well, yes and no. Miss Manners does not quibble with suspending the rule against shouting at strangers when an occasion arises to shout "Help!" but that is a request, however urgent, and not an insult.

In the opposite situation, when one seems to be in danger from others, tact is required—for the sake of being effective as well as being respectful.

We all know the rules about staying home when sick, keeping our distance and washing our hands. They must be enforced.

But that does not give license to the sort of people who, under normal circumstances, would be telling you that you should get married or divorced, have or stop having children and find or quit a job.

What they are doing now is summarily ordering people to go home, without knowledge of why they are out. Even strict quarantines recognize the need to buy food and medicine, exercise and tend to those in severe need.

And never mind that those disciplinarians are outside themselves, or they wouldn't be within shouting distance.

We all also know that coughing can be lethal. But as any performer can tell you, there are plenty of coughs that don't harm others, but may arise from asthma, acid reflux, allergies and being in an audience. Targeting such people as public enemies is as unhelpful as it is mean. Even when it was done at symphony concerts.

But what about those who actually are breaking the basic rules?

Then it takes tact to be effective. Reforming strangers only works when it assumes mistaken goodwill and allows them to comply without enduring public embarrassment, even if they deserve to be ashamed of themselves.

Dear Miss Manners—When out in public, how can you politely ask people to keep their social distance?

Gentle Reader—By treating it as a common problem, rather than showing offense at being encroached upon. Rather than "Back off," Miss Manners recommends, "I think we had better keep farther apart."

Dear Miss Manners—It is my understanding that when walking on a sidewalk or path, one should walk on his or her right side of the path. And now, with the requirement for social distancing, couples or groups should walk single file when passing others coming in the opposite direction to allow for a 6-foot clearance if possible.

What is the proper response when people either don't understand this or choose to ignore it? I often find myself stepping off the sidewalk or path and into the street or a driveway in order to avoid these people. Other than glaring at them as they pass, is there a proper way to inform them?

Gentle Reader—Not having the power to lock people up, etiquette can seldom guarantee that you will change another person's behavior—only that you will have made every effort short of rudeness or force.

This is why governments get involved in pandemics. Miss Manners assures you that crossing the street to avoid someone, stepping on to a driveway and waiting or—presuming that you are not putting yourself in even more imminent danger—stepping into the street will make your point. The glare is optional.

Dear Miss Manners—At what point am I allowed to adopt an angry tone and drop the "please" after repeated requests to the person behind me in line for "social distancing at 6 feet, please?"

In my experience, people back up for a short time and then creep back up next to me—repeatedly. I have to admit that the other day, I said loud enough for others to hear, "This is the fifth time I've had to ask you for the social distancing the CDC is telling us all to do. What is wrong with you?"

I finally got the reaction I needed. I'm so exasperated, I'm thinking of carrying a yardstick with me wherever I go and using it like a sword to fend off intruders.

Gentle Reader—No, no, no. You would only end up hitting someone with that yardstick, adding violence into a difficult enough situation. Besides, it is only 3-feet-long, and you would need two of them.

Even before the advent of the virus, Miss Manners noticed that people turn especially vicious in grocery stores. (Other lines, too, but especially in grocery stores. Perhaps, as their mothers told them, they are acting like that because they are hungry.)

And customer-to-customer corrections rarely succeed. To do so, these not only have to be polite, but must offer a face-saving way for the offender to retreat. Perhaps "I don't know if you heard me, but I'm worried about our sticking to the new rules about keeping distances." Said loudly, it should encourage everyone to back up.

Far better to invoke third-party authority. You could ask the cashier to remind the entire line to keep to the space. But that, too, would have to be repeated. Please suggest to the store's management the practice that some states have started placing tape at intervals on the floor to mark the proper spacing.

Dear Miss Manners—In these days of COVID-19 and forever hence, may I offer individuals with overt symptoms of sickness (coughing, sneezing, etc.) a spare sealed face mask?

I've always been charmed by the ethos of some cultures in Asia where individuals don them automatically. Over the years, I've also stewed in silence, particularly strapped on airplanes, while an individual clearly continues to exhibit symptoms of sickness. I usually carry a mask or two for myself, but they are so much more effective in preventing the transmission of "germs," rather than shielding one from them.

One can never tell who might be immune-compromised, from medical conditions or medical treatments. "I happen to have a spare mask. May I offer it to you?"

Gentle Reader—Do you mean, is the surgical mask this century's handkerchief?
It could well be, but only as long as we pay careful attention to the ever-changing protocols (it is the "forever hence" that gives Miss Manners pause).

Even a short time ago, your generosity might have been perceived as an accusation: that the person in question was obviously sick and not being mindful of others. As this is being written, however, most would see it as a much-coveted offering, on a level in value with toilet paper and facial tissue.

As your intention could still fall into the former category, Miss Manners suggests that you choose your phrasing carefully. Yours is not bad, but she suggests that the intonation make it clear that you would offer it to anybody—and that you are not targeting this particular persona based on age or perceived condition. Even if this is not, in fact, the case.

Excerpted from Miss Manners' Guide to Contagious Etiquette. Copyright © 2020 by Judith Martin, Nicholas Martin and Jacobina Martin. Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing.