Learn how to safely navigate the new rules with compassion and respect for others.

By Catherine Newman
August 20, 2020
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By now, we’ve all seen the comedic drawing comparing someone’s mask-escaping nose to a penis drooping over the top of a pair of underpants. We’ve read reports of house parties where dozens of unmasked people got sick—and also of protests, where thousands of masked ones didn’t. We have, it seems, been some combination of our best and worst selves during this pandemic, but we have a little more time (alas) to do this better. So let’s start with a silver lining: the quandaries and awkwardness of social distancing actually give us an opportunity to work on being the compassionate, kind, intelligent people we want to be anyway. And to work on the skills we need to live well in community, such as communicating well, taking responsibility for ourselves, and setting clear boundaries. “This is true for women in particular,” explains Lauren R. Taylor, director of the self-empowerment organization Defend Yourself. “There are all kinds of reasons we don’t have these skills.” And we need them now, maybe more than ever.

We are interdependent. Or, as the New Mexico Department of Health puts it, “My mask protects YOU…your mask protects ME.” Social distancing is mutually protective, which makes it unlike just about anything else we practice (except, maybe, safe sex). Here are some strategies for negotiating space, maintaining our relationships, respecting other people’s dignity, and staying safe in the process.

Are two strangers in the park chatting without masks? Mentally wish them well and be on your way (and, if you like, contact your political representatives to request stricter social distancing mandates or more rigorous enforcement). Similarly, if you hear about a couple of friends who’ve gotten together indoors—which we know is risky—remind yourself that this is not a race with your horse in it. Because, oh my god, our horse is in so many races right now, and the races are so long. We really need to conserve our energy.

If everybody working at the supermarket seems to have their mask dangling from one ear, decide if you want to talk to a manager or leave the store. Likewise at a backyard gathering where people seem to be standing in increasingly close and maskless clumps, talk to the host if you’d like (“I know we’re all so crazy excited to see each other again, but I’m worried about the lack of social distancing. Would you be willing to make a gentle announcement reminding everyone to take a step back and put their masks back on?"), or else make a graceful exit. And make a mental note not to go to the party the next time, if that’s not a situation where you can be comfortable. As is true in the rest of our lives, all we can control is our own behavior.

We don’t always understand what we’re seeing or what it means. The maskless person approaching you at the gas station might have a cognitive disability; that close-talking child in your kid’s fourth-grade classroom might not know the rules or the reasons for them; people are in the midst of invisible crises of all kinds. So, before you do or say anything else, take a breath and practice compassion. “This person is a person, like me” is a (kind of strange) mantra I like to say to myself. Also: “We are literally in this together—sharing this space.” A compassionate mindset will make whatever you do next much more likely to go smoothly, whereas shaming or scolding someone, or yelling, “Get back, Satan!" is likely to make you, and them, exactly zero percent safer.

Everybody—strangers, sure, but also married couples, siblings, and roommates—has a different threshold for safety right now. One way to take care of each other is to assess who is feeling most at risk and to respect that person’s boundaries. If you’re planning to do something you take to be relatively unrisky—going to a backyard bonfire with a few friends, say—but you live with your immunocompromised dad and he feels super anxious about it? Don’t go. Or, have a conversation where you put aside the science for a moment (even though, almost always, the science is our best friend) to focus on your beloved person’s feelings. “I don’t want you to be anxious,” is an important thing to learn how to say. “Is there a way that this could feel safer to you?”

Who are you talking to, and what communication style is likely to have the greatest positive impact on them? Tuning yourself to your audience is what Taylor refers to as a “de-escalating strategy,” and many women are likely to have and use these skills already: we talk quietly to calm somebody aggressive; we make a joke to diffuse tension; we’re self-deprecating; we apologize for something that’s not our fault. And it’s not because this is the right way to act, in some kind of ethical sense. It’s that this can be the right way to act to keep ourselves, and each other, safe. You’re not trying to catch more flies with honey. (Who wants flies?) You’re trying to not catch COVID (or give it to someone else). Big difference.

This is Taylor’s strategy: First, take a breath so that you’re grounded and responsive, instead of panicky and reactive. Then ask yourself these three questions:

  • How do I feel?
  • What do I need?
  • What do I want?

If you’re waiting in line at the pharmacy and someone is close enough behind you to step your heel out of your shoe: “How do I feel?” (scared); “What do I need?” (to feel safer); What do I want? (for this person to stay six feet away from me). “That last answer,” Taylor explains, “tells you what to say. ‘Please stay six feet away from me.’” This is not “How dare you!” or “Do you not read the news?” This is compassionate and friendly and, also, a clear, direct expression of your boundaries.

Gather a few handy phrases and openers so that you’ve got a mix of clear requests, scientific rejoinders, compassionate responses, and strategic quips for situations that call for them. These are some I crowd-sourced from my friends:

  • Start with “we” instead of “you”: “We’re standing pretty close. Should we step apart a little bit?”
  • My friend (who is actually a doctor) says, “I’m a doctor and I was just in a meeting about this. The research is really suggesting that the mask needs to be pulled up over your nose to keep us all safe.” (I’m not a doctor, but now I sometimes say this, too.)
  • “Oops! I can see your nose!”
  • “Better safe than sorry, right?” (Especially useful for folks calling the science into question.)
  • “I don’t want us to get each other sick.”
  • “I’m COVID cautious. Would you mind backing up a little?”
  • “I’m practicing social distancing.”
  • Boundary-setting starters, such as: “I really need you to…” “Could you please…?” “I would love it if…”

And, of course, last but not least: “Thank you so much for figuring this out with me. I really appreciate it.”

Catherine Newman is Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnist and the author of How to Be a Person.