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Pandemic Etiquette From the Emily Post Institute

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Lizzie Post - COURTESY OF  NADIA HUCKO
  • Courtesy Of Nadia Hucko
  • Lizzie Post

Social distancing is among the most important recommendations for slowing the spread of COVID-19, more commonly known as the coronavirus. It's also really hard. For one thing, a lot goes into self-imposed isolation: stocking supplies, finding new ways to stay connected to friends and family, figuring out WTF to watch on Netflix. Then there are the logistical issues of maintaining the prescribed six feet of air space around you when you do have to brave the outside world. That might be even more challenging than finding toilet paper to hoard.

Humans are social animals, hardwired to crave and respond to interpersonal stimuli. So adhering to social distancing requires us to overrule our biological instincts — and some cultural ones, too.

"If you stick your hand out to someone in America, it is nearly impossible for them not to react by sticking their hand out to you," Lizzie Post says. Avoiding a greeting or handshake "feels awkward and counter to everything we're used to when it comes to simple social interactions," she continues. "Yet it's important. It's the way to flatten that curve."

Post, 37, is the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette icon Emily Post. Together with her cousin Daniel Post Senning, she is copresident of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, the nation's foremost authority on manners since 1946.

To address the new interpersonal quandaries posed by the pandemic, the Post Institute recently began offering online tips on navigating the etiquette of social distancing. COVID-19 courtesy was also a recent topic on "Awesome Etiquette," the podcast that Post and Post Senning cohost. In short, it's probably never been more important to mind your manners.

"It's really simple," Post says. "Safety first."

The etiquette of social distancing is rooted in the same fundamental principles that Emily Post began preaching nearly a century ago. As Lizzie Post explained in a 2019 interview with Seven Days, "Etiquette, from an Emily Post perspective, is about treating people with consideration and respect and honesty." But here's the rub: "Good etiquette is about building positive interactions with one another," she said.

How do you build positive interactions when you're not supposed to interact? According to Post, it starts with understanding that minimizing personal contact is, right now, proper etiquette.

"For social distancing, literally not touching people and putting more space around you, that is the appropriate thing to do," Post says. "It's the considerate thing to do. It's the respectful thing to do. And it's the honest thing to do."

That sounds good in theory. But, as anyone who's tried to stock up at a grocery store this week knows, maintaining distance can lead to tense moments with on-edge strangers when they invade your space — or you invade theirs.

"We're in this heightened sense of awareness, but our habits haven't really changed," Post observes. "There's actually a lot of reminding about manners going on, which is an interesting moment as a society.

"There are a lot of people who are very willing to say things like 'Don't forget to cover your mouth when you cough' to people around them," she continues.

Those people are also likely to act in ways that might be considered rude under normal circumstances, such as giving a wide berth to someone who coughs on the street, or rejecting any kind of touch. Those behaviors, Post says, need to be accepted as OK.

"Expect for people to say, 'I'm not gonna hug right now' or decline a handshake," she says. You should also expect that those interactions might ruffle your feathers.

"It's good to brace yourself for the fact that some [reminders] are going to come gently and politely, and others are going to come from a place of fear or frustration," Post advises. "Try not to judge people who are afraid and frustrated. Just say, 'I hear you. Thanks for the reminder.'"

Even in the apocalypse, good manners extend to the bunker.

"If you're home sick for two whole weeks, it's a lot," Post says. "For sanity's sake," she recommends "talking to people regularly via the devices we have, encouraging each other to pick up the phone and call, so that people who are isolated don't feel so isolated."

In other words, call your mother. And your grandmother. And anyone else who might get a lift from hearing from you. "Keep the connections open any way that you can," Post says.

On that note, the people with whom you're self-quarantined may be using their devices even more than usual. Post suggests you allow for and forgive extra screen time — up to a point.

"At the same time, if you are in a situation where it's you and your partner self-isolating together, you don't want to do it to the point where you're being rude to the person sitting right next to you," she says.

Additionally, it's important to grant your bunker-mates space to breathe. Post cites recent reports of couples under lockdown in Italy having more fights.

"You want to be aware that it's a lot more exposure to each other," she says.

Last year saw the release of Post's book Higher Etiquette: A Guide to the World of Cannabis, From Dispensaries to Dinner Parties. As people hunker down to binge "Picard" or "Love Is Blind," she says, proper weed protocol is especially important.

"Definitely roll personals," she says. "Definitely have your own bowl.

"With cannabis, sharing is at the heart of that culture — sharing a bong, sharing a bowl, sharing a dab rig — and you feel rude when you don't pass a joint or share a bowl," she continues. "You gotta get over that."

Beyond even that high-minded sentiment, Post pinpoints one piece of etiquette advice that supersedes all the others.

"Be compassionate," she says. "You might think someone's fear of this is silly, but they also might live with an elderly person or just simply be scared because there is a lot of stuff flying around out there.

"There is a lot of self-care that needs to happen in times when people are really nervous," Post continues. "So being compassionate and taking that moment to just remember that everyone is in a different place with this is important."

That, and wash your damn hands ... please.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Pandemic P's and Q's | Etiquette reminders from the Emily Post Institute in the time of COVID-19"