For the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has defined our daily life, determining how we learn, work, eat, travel and socialize. But those parameters are changing, as millions of vaccinated Americans mingle with the millions waiting for their turn and the millions who remain reluctant to get the shots. That means the rules of etiquette are changing, as well.
Six months ago, when the pandemic had transformed from novelty to new reality and it seemed time to codify how to trudge through life in a mannerly fashion, The Washington Post turned to several personal advice and etiquette experts for guidance on issues of the time: how to greet people, respond to invitations, tip delivery drivers, etc. Now the vaccines have brought a whole new set of sticky situations to negotiate (politely) until the time when we hopefully reach herd immunity.
“We’re really talking about how we can all help each other to move forward,” says Steven Petrow, a journalist and contributing columnist to The Post who has written five books on etiquette. “It’s about we and not me, which is fundamentally what etiquette is about.”
General vaccine manners
Q: How can I politely ask someone if they’ve been vaccinated?
A: First, reflect about why you are asking this question, Petrow says. Are you asking someone so you can determine how to safely interact with them? Or are you just curious?
If it is the latter, Petrow advises against quizzing your friends. Instead, you should allow them to disclose their vaccination status “when they’re comfortable.”
But while personal health generally is a private matter, you should feel empowered to ask questions that are relevant to your own health. You can ask whether someone is vaccinated if you will be interacting with them, for example, but you don’t need to know why or when someone was eligible for the vaccine. A person could have been eligible because of underlying health conditions they may not want to disclose. The reason does not affect you.
When it comes to vaccination status, Judith Martin — who is known for her columns as Miss Manners — says “the kindest thing” is for people to volunteer that they’re vaccinated in a conversation.
“You should make it easy for people to find out without prying and, certainly, without delivering sermons,” Martin says.
Q: Is it rude to post a vaccine selfie on social media?
A: Again, the answer lies in the intent, Petrow says. Why are you posting a selfie? Is it to encourage others to get vaccinated? Or are you trying to show off?
In a practical sense, a selfie at the clinic is a quick way for you to tell friends and family that you have been vaccinated and perhaps spur them to do the same. But if your posting is less of a public service message and more a form of gloating, Petrow says, “you should think twice about it.”
Public health experts hope vaccine selfies will encourage those who are still hesitant to register for an appointment. While public opinion has changed and more people are open to getting vaccinated, a CBS News-YouGov poll conducted in March found 22% of Americans still saying they were not sure they would get a vaccine when it became available to them and another 22% saying they would not get the shots.
If you do decide to post a selfie from a clinic, be sure to obscure the personal information on your vaccination card before sharing it on social media.
Q: Is it rude to go maskless in public after I’m vaccinated?
A: Some states have lifted statewide mask mandates, and some haven’t. But, in general, wearing a mask in public is a simple way to help strangers feel at ease when passing by, and David Coggins, author of the book “Men and Manners,” says that is reason enough to cover your mouth and nose.
“Sometimes etiquette follows the law, sometimes etiquette surpasses the law,” Petrow says. “We need to continue to think of ourselves as larger communities where we’re each trying to protect each other.”
Dilemmas involving family and friends
Q: I have a friend or relative I think is behaving irresponsibly. Can I say something?
A: Whether the person is sharing unmasked selfies or vaccine misinformation, calling them out could end up making them more set in their ways or beliefs, our experts say.
There has been a rash of people lecturing one another about what they should or should not do during the pandemic, Martin notes, and these “sermons” are largely unproductive. The only time it might be useful to have this type of conversation, she adds, is when it is with someone you are already close to, and you can do so privately.
However well-intended it might be, Celeste Headlee, a journalist and author of “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter,” says that offering unsolicited advice through a public Facebook or Instagram comment will not change a thing.
“It’s never OK. It’s never a good idea. Never, ever, ever,” Headlee says. “In fact, when we get that unsolicited advice, your brain goes through the same series of actions that it would if you were being physically attacked.”
If you see something that disturbs you on social media, start by assuming the best, Petrow says. It could be that someone shared an article without knowing it was misleading, or did not realize their behavior was unsafe. If it is the latter, try to understand their motivations and privately offer some safer alternatives or “coping strategies,” says Carolyn Cannuscio, director of research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Public Health Initiatives.
“People are looking for the magical loopholes that they can step through so that they can return to their free and rich and rewarding social world,” Cannuscio says. “And, we’re not there.”
Q: Can I try to convince someone to get vaccinated?
A: Although it may be worthwhile to talk with loved ones who do not agree with you, do not expect conversations about vaccines to resolve quickly, says Gregory Zimet, a behavioral scientist who studies vaccination and is a professor of pediatrics in clinical psychology at Indiana University’s School of Medicine. You also should know when to back off: Be respectful when someone says they do not want to talk anymore and look for other signs that the conversation should be drawn to a close, such as the other person’s mood and body language, and the tone of the discussion.
Instead of asking pointed questions such as, “Why haven’t you gotten your vaccine?,” you can try sharing your own experience with the vaccine and create the opportunity for others to ask you about the shots, Zimet says.
“You may not convince them today or tomorrow,” says Vish Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But if you know when to drop the subject, “there may be an opportunity to convince them down the road when they’re ready, instead of losing them completely.”
Q: How do I talk to a friend or family member who wants to visit but isn’t vaccinated?
A: Don’t feel obligated to welcome an unvaccinated person into your home, Petrow says. Explain that you are not comfortable being inside with others unless everyone has been vaccinated.
“They have made a decision that is basically a public health threat,” Petrow says. “It goes back to thinking about ‘we’ and not ‘me.’ “
Akua Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist in Philadelphia, suggests trying to find common ground. Start by acknowledging that it is a difficult time and everyone wants to stay healthy and safe. Then, she says, work with your loved ones to think of ways to maintain connectedness — whether it is socially distant outdoor gatherings or Zoom sessions.
“Family is about rising above challenge, and this is an opportunity to do that,” she says.
Q: Can I ask other parents if they’ve been vaccinated before my kid goes to their house to hang out?
A: Meghan Leahy, a parenting coach and columnist for The Post, says you are free to ask this question, but be clear about why you are asking. Here’s how Leahy suggest you start the conversation:
“Hey, Reginald is so excited to hang out, and we are being extra-cautious because my immunocompromised mother lives with us. So are y’all vaccinated yet? It’s fine if you aren’t. We just may need to move the play date outside.”
“Be clear, be transparent and be open to another option based on the responses you get,” Leahy writes in an email.
Q: How do I reconnect with a friend I haven’t talked to since before the pandemic?
A: Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax says the best way forward is straight through the first awkward “hello.” Here’s what she wrote:
“Awkwardness is cruel — the harder you try to avoid it, the worse it gets. Better to stomp through it with no pretense of grace or style: ‘I’ve missed you but I forgot how to interact with people.’ Call it a cry for help. It’s disarming, and can even be a conversation starter.”
Handling dining out and events
Q: How can I politely say no to plans for gathering in public?
A: Start by determining your boundaries in advance, says Headlee. What situations would you be OK with? What would make you feel uncomfortable?
If you are not comfortable, Headlee says, you can put the “no” on yourself as a way to avoid any appearance of passing judgment on the other person’s decisions.
Q: What is the guidance for mannerly dining out?
A: Do some research in advance to see what the business’s protocols may be for indoor or outdoor dining. Some places ask diners to order from their phone, for example. Others have restrictions on the number of people who can sit at one table.
The CDC recommends that customers wear their masks at a restaurant whenever they are not eating or drinking — regardless of whether they are dining indoors or out. You should also wear a mask whenever you are interacting with restaurant staff or walking to the restroom, says Fritz Hahn, who covers bars and nightlife for The Post.
Extra safety measures at bars and restaurants might mean service is a bit slower than usual, Tiffanie Barriere, a longtime bartender and bar and brand consultant in Atlanta, told The Post. The restaurant also might be short-staffed, so be patient. And, remember to tip generously for the service.
Speaking of tipping, now is the time to round up for all kinds of front-line workers, says Coggins. For the millions of Americans employed in the service industry, such as delivery drivers, hair stylists and baristas, working from home during the pandemic has never been an option.
“Yes, it’s financial transaction,” Coggins says. “But it’s also gratuity. It’s gratitude.”
Q: How can I host a small gathering so everyone is comfortable?
A: If you’re thinking of inviting a small group to your house or out to dinner, provide some context with the invitation, Coggins says. Help your guests feel at ease by sharing your vaccination status, whether the gathering will be indoors or outdoors, and how many people are invited. If possible, provide alternatives for times and locations.
“We want other people to feel relaxed,” Coggins says. “This is a time for really respecting people’s humanity.”
Petrow urges trying to accommodate your guests’ concerns, rather than excluding people. “It’s a time to come together,” he says. “Especially after we’ve all been isolated.”
Q: Is it OK to host a big event if local restrictions allow it?
A: Regardless of whether local or state public health guidelines allow for larger gatherings, Leana Wen, a contributing columnist for The Post and former Baltimore health commissioner, says you should reflect on whether you are comfortable hosting an event where someone could get contract the virus. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should,” she says.
As the host of a party or get-together, you are inviting a conversation about health and safety, Coggins says. If you are not ready to have those conversations with guests, then you are not ready to host.
“That’s just part of your duty as a host now,” Coggins says. “It’s that simple.”
Q: Can I ask a host whether other people at an event will be vaccinated?
A: This may seem like an etiquette question, but Hax says “it’s really about utility.”
“Your job is to assess your own vulnerability, your own risk to others and your own access to and comfort and familiarity with protective measures,” Hax writes. “You can also ask about location, capacity, transportation and other aspects of the event the hosts can control. If they bristle at such questions, then you can assume a ‘no’ on their prioritizing the safety of their guests.”
Q: How do I decline a wedding invitation?
A: Hax says you should decline the invitation just like you would for any other reason before the pandemic. Send your regrets and a thoughtful gift. If you are close to the couple, then explain you are not yet comfortable traveling or attending large events.
“You may get pushback,” Hax writes, “but that doesn’t reflect poorly on you. Instead it reveals their failure to respect how utterly devastating this pandemic has been and continues to be for some people, how what’s safe for some is not safe for others and how important it is that they do not prioritize their party over others’ health and safety.
“What COVID-19 has done to milestone life events is terrible. Being dismissive of (or worse, politicizing) one’s own and others’ mortal risks is worse.”