How do you tell someone to move away from you? A Hamilton etiquette coach gives advice

If someone isn't staying two metres away, it's OK to say something about it, says Lorna Somers. Here's how to do it without causing a fight.

If someone isn't staying 2 metres away, it's OK to say something about it, says Lorna Somers. But do it nicely

Two people keep a physical distance from each other during a morning walk through a Guelph, Ont., park on Friday, April 3, 2020. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

By now, it's a familiar situation. You're standing in line at the grocery store and someone isn't standing the recommended two-metre distance from you. You move away. That person moves closer.

What do you do? Cower? Shout at them? Just put up with it?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a wealth of new etiquette situations to ponder, says Lorna Somers, a Hamilton etiquette coach.

It's OK to tell someone standing too close that you're backing away, Somers says. The concept of etiquette is rooted in the need for health and safety. As the need to avoid plagues and ailments over the centuries has evolved, so too have etiquette rules.

"For better or worse, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt," says Lorna Somers. (Lorna Somers)

It's best to use a kind voice and demeanour, she says. Use humour, or keep it focused on yourself. She suggests using the line: "I didn't realize I was so close to you, but I can't move any farther ahead. If you give us a little more space, we'll be in a lot better shape."

She says "taking it on yourself as the problem usually makes it a little more palatable for the receiver.

"I would say, 'I don't want to cause you any injury or put you in harm's way,' rather than saying, 'Listen, buddy, back away from my space.'"

Everyone is anxious right now, Somers says. "I find people are behaving outside how they would normally behave for reasons of just pure anxiety and fear."

"I think you're absolutely fine to say something, but it's all in how you say it. The tone, the smile, softens how you're saying something."

Here's some more pandemic-era etiquette advice:

Declining an invitation to an in-person social situation

Most people know not to invite friends over by now, Somers says. But in the off chance someone proposes something that violates physical distancing rules, decline like you would any social event you can't attend.

"You could say, 'As much as I would love to see you, and it sounds like a wonderful event, I think [I'll decline] for everyone's health and well-being, and for my own piece of mind. I don't want to be the one who potentially introduces a virus into the group. But there'll be lots of other times for us to be together."

Given the potential health impacts, "any reasonable person would understand that," she said. "If they don't understand that, why are you hanging out with them?"

Don't be afraid to cross the street to avoid someone

Under ordinary circumstances, crossing the street to avoid another pedestrian might feel strange, or rude. Don't feel bad about doing it, she says.

"Health and safety eclipse everything at this point, and if someone's feelings are hurt, they really just need to read the news for about 30 seconds and they'll understand why," she said. "I think we just can't worry about that."

Stay respectful when working from home

For those working from home, Somers recommends a combination of communication methods — video chatting, phone calls and text. Too much of one gets tiring, she says.

"To sit from seven o'clock in the morning to eight o'clock at night in Zoom meetings is not good on so many levels," she said. "But to communicate exclusively through email, that can only tell us so much and is so open to misinterpretation — capital letters versus small letters, no salutation, whatever it happens to be … I think both of them are required."

When sending an email, she said, it's best to make the subject line clear and include a personal salutation. 

"I go back and add, 'I hope you're faring OK. These are challenging days. I'd really appreciate if you could look at this.' Right now, those small touches, the ones that we tend to gloss over, go a long way toward letting people know you're a human. We're missing that contact."

Setting up to work at home

Somers also recommends those working from home treat each day like a work day. "Get dressed, brush your hair, and set up a work space that looks professional."

Online meetings should be free of spouses, kids and unnecessary noises. 

Overall, if we approach every situation with "grace and kindness," she said, "it's going to position us well for when we do reclaim our normal lives."


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She often tweets about Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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