An Etiquette Guide to Surviving a Pandemic

Some grocery stores smartly provide signage to help people maintain their distance. Christian Cotroneo

We're living in a time when loving thy neighbor isn't so easy.

Mostly because your neighbors — even the kindly retiree waving at you from across the street — could hurt you.

The world is in the throes of a deadly pandemic. Everyone could be contagious. But not everyone has gotten the memo on social distancing.

In a nutshell, that's the life-saving practice of keeping physical space between humans, and along the way slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Don't believe us? Here's a way to calculate how many lives you can save by maintaining a buffer zone around you.)

The trouble is, humans are not machines, capable of perfect and automatic spacing. Assuming that most people want to do the right thing, it's best to be polite when reminding someone to get with the program.

Here are a few ways to get through these viral times without descending into savagery.

Some rules of etiquette apply more than ever. Others, not at all.

Many of the rules of etiquette were basically invented to keep people safe while maintaining polite relations.

That's why we wash our hands before dinner, don't snatch food from other people's plates and refrain from talking with a mouth full of sauerkraut.

We're also expanding the normal polite space we afford someone we pass on the street.

Even the most basic human etiquette like covering up a cough has suddenly transformed into wearing a face mask.

This is also a time when people who wouldn't normally call out etiquette breaches should be more vocal. Like, for instance, when someone in line behind you edges up on your heels.

"I didn't realize I was so close to you," is an example of the proper response that etiquette coach Lorna Somers offers in an interview with CBC News. "But I can't move any farther ahead. If you give us a little more space, we'll be in a lot better shape."

People waiting in line outside a store.
Notches on the wall of some buildings help keep people just the right distance apart. Christian Cotroneo

While in some cases, we need to amplify basic etiquette — particularly when it comes to respecting personal space — there are other situations when we need to dispense with etiquette completely.

There is absolutely no expectation that you should be shaking hands, much less hugging or kissing anyone.

"The handshake is on hold for what could be an indefinite period of time," etiquette expert Lisa Grott tells Reader's Digest. "They're risky business, so lead by example."

Indeed, scientists consider a handshake one of the more efficient means for transmitting viruses.

A fist bump, on the other hand, is generally deemed safer. But not everyone gets the timing right. A missed fist bump can look a lot like a thrown fist, which is not a good look in these tense times.

And that brings us to an essential point of politeness.

Don't be the star of a Walmart YouTube video.

Certainly, there will be times when you may have to be a little more assertive. But unless toilet paper goes on sale at your local supermarket, there will likely never be an occasion when you'll have to visit a flying elbow upon your neighbor.

But you will be forgiven for occasionally harboring a dark thought or two. In fact, it's well established that anxiety leads people to behave more rudely. We also know that people who normally suffer from social anxiety may appear to behave rudely. Now, imagine everyone has social anxiety. Everyone may appear to be in it for themselves. (Again, see the toilet paper aisle.)

Unfortunately, rudeness has a tendency to beget rudeness.

"When you are feeling stress, you are more likely to act rudely toward others," Peter Post, the Boston Sunday Globe's etiquette columnist, writes. "And when you are acting rudely towards others, you tend to feel more stress, which leads to more rudeness which leads to more stress in a never-ending circle."

But it takes just one person to consciously overrule their baser instincts in a bad situation to break that cycle.

Human gestures were made for these times.

Two women doing an elbow bump.
In time, the elbow bump may become the new handshake — but we're not there yet. Linda Bestwick/Shutterstock

A wave has always been an efficient means of social interaction. It's essentially a "hi" and a "bye" all wrapped up in a single gesture that won't risk sharing a dreaded disease.

Consider, for example, a scenario that finds you leaving your house at the same moment as your neighbor across the street. Normally, you might cross the street, shake hands and exchange pleasantries. But with a wave, there's no need to cross that street. No need to say a word. Just throw him a wave — add a smile, if you're feeling it — and move along.

Your neighbor gets it because, just like you, he's been sitting on the couch all day watching the news.

We can also learn a lot from crossing guards at times like this. Is someone on the sidewalk ahead of you coming your way? Don't freak out. Simply wave a finger (not that one) to let that person know you intend to cross the street. Or if there isn't much traffic, maybe you'll walk right in the middle of the street. In any case, be proud for yielding to good manners.

Signs go a long way toward avoiding human interaction.

While signs like "Keep off the grass" or "Beware of dog" may not seem like peak politeness, these days a well-placed notice would be well appreciated by neighbors.

Consider a simple sign on your front door, letting people know that you're self-isolating. Or at the very least, a notice on your mailbox that reads, "No junk mail" might be appreciated by the postal worker who puts himself in harm's way to deliver a silly coupon to your door.

Be Kind, Rewind sticker.
Go ahead and print this sticker out, if you like. Sundry Studio/Shutterstock

Signs could work for people too.

Maybe you can peel off that sticker from the VHS tape you forgot to bring back to Blockbuster and affix it to the back of your shirt: "Be kind. Rewind."

If you don't have one of those, however, you may have to take more extreme measures — and politely ask the person behind you to take a step back.