We are two months into life in the age of COVID-19 and it’s getting more complicated. Right as many of us were getting used to staying distanced, staying home, and staying in, some states and areas are relaxing restrictions. It isn’t life as it used to be, and it’s inconsistent across the nation. As we all try to figure out what relaxing measures means and what we are comfortable with, we’ve also embraced full on what life via video chat and living six feet apart can be like. Like normal humans, we all have questions, concerns, pet peeves, opinions and of course mute buttons that malfunction.
Before we dive into Etiquette in the Age of COVID-19 we would like to start by saying:
The threat of the novel coronavirus is still present. Until we have a vaccine or until we’ve gotten a handle on this virus’ impact on us, we are going to see requests, and requirements to physically distance ourselves and use personal protective measures like masks and hand washing regularly. It has changed our social behavior and it will continue to change our social behavior as communities find ways to interact safely. These new social measures can feel incredibly awkward and at times impolite, but you are not alone in feeling that way about them. Everyone is learning and figuring this out as we go.
Safety is the guideline right now and measures that we take to protect ourselves and others are right in line with the Emily Post principles of etiquette: consideration, respect, and honesty.
To find more information about the virus, it’s spread and what precautions and measures to take please visit:
As well as your state or local department of health.
When we think about what advice to give, we think first about safety and then about how to be kind and considerate and respectful when trying to be safe. Safety comes before etiquette. This doesn’t mean we toss consideration, respect, and honesty out the window. Far from it, we’ve seen how doing so can lead to tragically bad and completely unnecessary things happening. What it means is that how we interact and what is deemed “polite” or “acceptable” behavior will change during this time. Let’s look at some of the basics to consider here and for specific topics see these articles:
Zoom/Video Call Etiquette for Socializing (coming soon)
Zoom/Video Call Etiquette for Work (coming soon)
Navigating Hanging Out Together Apart (coming soon)
We are all familiar with the term “social distancing” by now. And many are encouraging the use of the phrase “physical distancing” instead which helps people to imagine a less isolated solution. Our goal for physical distancing is that when out and about in public or when socializing with those we don’t live with, we keep ourselves – or our family group – at least 6 feet away from others when possible.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. We’ve all navigated a tight aisle at a store, an elevator or stairwell, or a friend leaning in too closely despite feeling awkward. But what is the right thing to do?
We get asked, more than anything else through our podcast and media interviews, how do you speak up when something is wrong, or bothering you? It’s not an easy thing to do. How you do it makes a huge difference to how well it’s received, but it’s not a magic key. You can never predict someone else’s reaction, especially that of a stranger. So our first piece of advice is and always will be to seek the help of someone in charge if the scenario provides such a person. A manager, usher, flight attendant, host, or whomever is in charge, can have the authority to help you and can also ensure that you aren’t dealing with someone alone. That being said, you don’t do this as a way to punish someone else, it’s to make sure a concern is raised, or that help or safety can be achieved.
If someone at a store hasn’t given you enough space to pass or reach the item you’d like, then a friendly “Mind giving me just a little more space so I can pass [or grab that item] safely?” You want to have an upbeat tone to your delivery, no edge whatsoever (think that person you know who is always upbeat, or sounds cheerful and if no one comes to mind think: how would Glinda the Good Witch, Dr. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, the CW’s Superman say it?). If the person scoffs at you, you can either pass anyway keeping as much distance as possible, wait until they move farther away, or go get something else and come back later.
Other phrases that are being heard and used when out and about to manage distancing:
Excuse me Sir, the line starts back there, everyone’s just distanced.
(while stepping back) Sorry I’m trying to keep 6 feet away.
Excuse me, I was next.
I’ll wait and catch the next elevator.
After you, please. (said genuinely)
Do you mind giving us just a little bit more space please, (hopefully followed by a: thank you so much)
A little space please.
Flow of Traffic
While following the guidance of the arrows and directions through stores is always important, it’s not worth getting into an altercation over. Either pass, doing what you can keep your distance, or go back the other way if the aisle isn’t crowded. Don’t make a stand when there are other safe options.
Public Outdoor Spaces
When it comes to public outdoor spaces it’s important to respect any distancing guides that have been put in place whether it’s marked areas to lounge or workout in, or directions for flow of traffic. Remember that even though you’re spaced apart from others, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze as well as not coughing, sneezing, singing, or yelling in the direction of others is helpful.
When trying to create physical distance on sidewalks, recreational paths and trails, you’re still trying to aim for six feet (about two adult arm lengths) apart. It’s really thoughtful if you’re a group or family out together to consider dropping to single file when passing others to help make room.
If it’s easy for you to be the person to step off the path or into the street (because you aren’t, using a walking or mobility aid, managing a frisky dog, balancing a toddler and a baby carriage or are on foot rather than wheels) to create space by all means make the move and do so early so that the other person doesn’t even have to guess at it.
Greetings continue to feel lacking during this strange time. Despite wonderfully bright and cheery waves, mini dances, hops, and skips when we meet, we miss hugs and solid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps. Greetings that involve touching are still not recommended at this time, so perfect your waves (you know your “professional wave”, your “zoom-meeting wave”, your “I-love-you-Grandma wave”, your “I-haven’t-seen-you-and-I’m-trying-so-hard-not-to-hug-you wave”) and use your tone of voice to match the occasion.
While masks are causing a lot of divisiveness, when combined with physical distancing wearing a mask in public can greatly reduce the risk of spread. Wearing masks may be around for a while so it’s best to try and get used to what it’s like to interact with them on. Since most people are wearing cotton or medical masks and few have clear plastic ones allowing their full face to be seen we are more often than not without many facial cues.
Smiling (anyway), and using your eyes (cue acting skills from every medical show ever for inspiration) and hands to gesture will be the way to connect while wearing masks.
Masks unfortunately also muffle the sound of our voice and so it’s important to get comfortable speaking up, especially when in a noisy store or on a loud street. While you don’t want to shout to the point of sounding unnatural or making the listener uncomfortable, you do need to literally speak up to be heard. If you don’t, often the other person will lean in to hear you, and then you end up stepping back to recreate some space. It’s a odd dance but it happens often.
As we move into figuring out dining indoors and patio dining scenarios be prepared to see people storing their masks in a paper bag or envelope while eating. Some places may place plastic shields between tables or even at tables depending on the restaurant and local requirements.
Wearing masks outdoors is not a bad idea if you’re passing frequently while out on rec paths and trails or in the park or on the sidewalks of your neighborhood. Many choose to “mask when they pass” and let their mask down while on long stretches without others or when there’s more than enough room to pass without any worry. (According to this article in the New York Times, you’re more likely to encounter an issue for yourself if you have prolonged time indoors without masks on than if you pass someone outdoors without a mask on.)
If you’re uncomfortable when you encounter someone without a mask on resist the urge to glare or tsk at them. Do what you can to keep yourself physically distanced and avoid interacting instead. Remember you can only control yourself as best you can. There will be times when it doesn’t go perfectly and even though that can cause stress and anxiety, which often lead to rudeness, arming ourselves with kindness and avoiding judgement of others is good etiquette.
Contact tracing – tracing the virus’ spread through individuals who have tested positive or been around those who tested positive for COVID-19 – is happening at different rates throughout the country, but early indications show that contact tracing by businesses and through events that we attend may become commonplace. Many places already use your phone number or email address to contact you about tickets or a reservation or even a purchase so it’s not unfamiliar. But to have it be connected to our health when visiting a restaurant can feel very different. While we don’t know yet exactly how contact tracing will impact our personal social gatherings (birthday parties, showers, weddings…) or our public socializing (bars, sports, groups, restaurants…) we are considering the possibility that in the future a host’s to-do list list, or advice for making a restaurant reservation for a work lunch might involve contact info for potential contact tracing follow ups.
We cannot emphasize this enough right now. These are extraordinary times and there are so many ways this virus is impacting all of us. Especially when it comes to how we are mentally handling the longevity of this pandemic. You don’t know what is affecting someone’s life making the current threat even worse (financially, emotionally, physically). It’s important to respect people where they are at, and not blow off their concerns or drive fear where it doesn’t need to be.
Many of us are so fortunate to have so many ways to connect to help get us through this crisis together, but loneliness and anxiety are still huge concerns. Reaching out to one another. Being patient and kind with each other. Listening to one another. Respecting one another. Helping those in need. These are the kinds of attitudes and actions that will carry us through. They often cost us nothing, and yet they can make an impactful difference.
You set aside the first hour of your day to work on a strategy document that you’ve been putting off for a week. You haven’t been disciplined about getting to it, but you’ve had one crisis after another to deal with in the past week. Now, finally, you’ve carved out 90 early morning minutes to work on it.
First, however, you take a quick peek at the email that has piled up in your inbox overnight. Before you know it, you’ve used up the whole 90 minutes responding to emails, even though none of them were truly urgent.
By the time you walk into your next meeting, you’re feeling frustrated that you failed to stick by your plan. This meeting is a discussion with a direct report about the approach he’ll be taking in a negotiation with an important client. You have strong views about how best to deal with the situation, but you’ve promised yourself that you will be open and curious rather than directive and judgmental. You’re committed, after all, to becoming a more empowering manager.
Instead, you find yourself growing even more irritable as he describes an approach that doesn’t feel right to you. Impulsively, you jump in with a sharp comment. He reacts defensively. You worry for a moment — and rightly so — that you cut him off too quickly, but you tell yourself that you’ve worked with this client for years, the outcome is critical, and you don’t have time to hear your direct report’s whole explanation. He leaves your office looking hurt and defeated.
Welcome to the invisible drama that operates inside us all day long at work, mostly outside our consciousness. Most of us believe we have one self. In reality, we have two different selves, run by two separate operating systems, in different parts of our brain.
The self that we’re most aware of — the one that planned to work diligently on the strategy document and listen patiently to your direct report — is run by our pre-frontal cortex and mediated through our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the self we prefer to present to the world. It’s calm, measured, rational, and capable of making deliberate choices.
The second self is run by our amygdala, a small almond-shaped cluster of nuclei in our mid-brain and it is mediated by our sympathetic nervous system. Our second self seizes control any time we begin to perceive threat or danger. It’s reactive, impulsive, and operates largely outside our conscious control.
This second self serves us well if a lion is coming at us, but the threats we experience today are mostly to our sense of worth and value. They can feel nearly as terrifying as those to our survival, but the danger we experience isn’t truly life-threatening. Responding to them as if they are only make things worse.
It’s in these moments that we often use our highest cognitive capacities to justify our worst behaviors. When we feel we’ve fallen short, we instinctively summon up our “inner lawyer” — a term coined by author Jonathan Haidt — to defend us.
Our inner lawyer is expert at rationalizing, avoiding, deflecting, dissembling, denying, disparaging, attacking, and blaming others for our missteps and shortcomings. The inner lawyer works overtime to silence our own inner critic, and to counter criticism from others. All this inner turmoil narrows and consumes our attention and drains our energy.
The problem is that most organizations spend far more time focused on generating external value than they do attending to people’s internal sense of value. Doing so requires navigational skills that most leaders have never been taught, much less mastered. The irony is that ignoring people’s internal experience leads them to spend more energy defending their value, leaving them less energy to create value.
In our work with leaders, we’ve discovered that the antidote to reacting from the second self is to develop the capacity to observe our two selves in real time. You can’t change what you don’t notice, but noticing can be a powerful tool for shifting from defending our value to creating value.
A well-cultivated self-observer allows us to watch our dueling selves without reacting impulsively. It also makes it possible to ask our inner lawyer to stand down whenever it rises up to argue our case to our inner and outer critics. Finally, the self-observer can acknowledge, without judgment, that we are both our best and our worst selves, and then make deliberate rather than reactive choices about how to respond in challenging situations.
To improve your capacity to self-observe, begin with negative emotions such as impatience, frustration, and anger. When you feel them arising, it’s a strong signal that you’re sliding into the second self. Simply naming these emotions as they arise is a way to gain some distance from them.
Also, watch out for times when you feel you’re digging in your heels. The absolute conviction that you’re right and the compulsion to take action are both strong indicators that you‘re feeling a sense of threat and danger.
In our work, we provide leaders with small daily doses of support — reminders to pay attention to what they’re feeling and thinking. We’ve also found it helpful to build small groups that meet at regular intervals so leaders can share their experiences. A blend of support, community, connection and accountability helps offset our shared impulse to stop noticing, push away discomfort, and revert to survival behaviors in the face of perceived threats to our value. A good starting place is to find a colleague you trust to be your accountability partner, and to seek regular feedback from one another.
Finally, it’s important to ask yourself two key questions in challenging moments: “What else could be true here?” and “What is my responsibility in this?” By regularly questioning your conclusions, you’re offsetting your confirmation bias — the instinct to look for evidence that supports what you already believe. By always looking for your own responsibility, you’re resisting the instinct to blame others and play victim and focusing instead on what you have the greatest ability to influence — your own behavior.
A deceptively simple premise lies at the heart of this deliberate set of practices: see more to be more. Rather than simply getting better at what they already do, transformational leaders balance courage and humility in order to grow and develop every day.
Over the past nearly 60 years, I have engaged with many leaders of governments, companies, and other organizations, and I have observed how our societies have developed and changed. I am happy to share some of my observations in case others may benefit from what I have learned.
Leaders, whatever field they work in, have a strong impact on people’s lives and on how the world develops. We should remember that we are visitors on this planet. We are here for 90 or 100 years at the most. During this time, we should work to leave the world a better place.
What might a better world look like? I believe the answer is straightforward: A better world is one where people are happier. Why? Because all human beings want to be happy, and no one wants to suffer. Our desire for happiness is something we all have in common.
But today, the world seems to be facing an emotional crisis. Rates of stress, anxiety, and depression are higher than ever. The gap between rich and poor and between CEOs and employees is at a historic high. And the focus on turning a profit often overrules a commitment to people, the environment, or society.
I consider our tendency to see each other in terms of “us” and “them” as stemming from ignorance of our interdependence. As participants in the same global economy, we depend on each other, while changes in the climate and the global environment affect us all. What’s more, as human beings, we are physically, mentally, and emotionally the same.
Look at bees. They have no constitution, police, or moral training, but they work together in order to survive. Though they may occasionally squabble, the colony survives on the basis of cooperation. Human beings, on the other hand, have constitutions, complex legal systems, and police forces; we have remarkable intelligence and a great capacity for love and affection. Yet, despite our many extraordinary qualities, we seem less able to cooperate.
In organizations, people work closely together every day. But despite working together, many feel lonely and stressed. Even though we are social animals, there is a lack of responsibility toward each other. We need to ask ourselves what’s going wrong.
I believe that our strong focus on material development and accumulating wealth has led us to neglect our basic human need for kindness and care. Reinstating a commitment to the oneness of humanity and altruism toward our brothers and sisters is fundamental for societies and organizations and their individuals to thrive in the long run. Every one of us has a responsibility to make this happen.
What can leaders do?
Cultivate peace of mind. As human beings, we have a remarkable intelligence that allows us to analyze and plan for the future. We have language that enables us to communicate what we have understood to others. Since destructive emotions like anger and attachment cloud our ability to use our intelligence clearly, we need to tackle them.
Fear and anxiety easily give way to anger and violence. The opposite of fear is trust, which, related to warmheartedness, boosts our self-confidence. Compassion also reduces fear, reflecting as it does a concern for others’ well-being. This, not money and power, is what really attracts friends. When we’re under the sway of anger or attachment, we’re limited in our ability to take a full and realistic view of the situation. When the mind is compassionate, it is calm and we’re able to use our sense of reason practically, realistically, and with determination.
We are naturally driven by self-interest; it’s necessary to survive. But we need wise self-interest that is generous and cooperative, taking others’ interests into account. Cooperation comes from friendship, friendship comes from trust, and trust comes from kindheartedness. Once you have a genuine sense of concern for others, there’s no room for cheating, bullying, or exploitation; instead, you can be honest, truthful, and transparent in your conduct.
The ultimate source of a happy life is warmheartedness. Even animals display some sense of compassion. When it comes to human beings, compassion can be combined with intelligence. Through the application of reason, compassion can be extended to all 7 billion human beings. Destructive emotions are related to ignorance, while compassion is a constructive emotion related to intelligence. Consequently, it can be taught and learned.
The source of a happy life is within us. Troublemakers in many parts of the world are often quite well-educated, so it is not just education that we need. What we need is to pay attention to inner values.
The distinction between violence and nonviolence lies less in the nature of a particular action and more in the motivation behind the action. Actions motivated by anger and greed tend to be violent, whereas those motivated by compassion and concern for others are generally peaceful. We won’t bring about peace in the world merely by praying for it; we have to take steps to tackle the violence and corruption that disrupt peace. We can’t expect change if we don’t take action.
Peace also means being undisturbed, free from danger. It relates to our mental attitude and whether we have a calm mind. What is crucial to realize is that, ultimately, peace of mind is within us; it requires that we develop a warm heart and use our intelligence. People often don’t realize that warmheartedness, compassion, and love are actually factors for our survival.
Buddhist tradition describes three styles of compassionate leadership: the trailblazer, who leads from the front, takes risks, and sets an example; the ferryman, who accompanies those in his care and shapes the ups and downs of the crossing; and the shepherd, who sees every one of his flock into safety before himself. Three styles, three approaches, but what they have in common is an all-encompassing concern for the welfare of those they lead.