3 Rules for Politeness During a Confusing Social Transition

Our pre-pandemic social manners have been upended. But although etiquette is always in flux, its principles should be timeless.

A man holding a face mask and a woman reach to shake hands
The Atlantic

The abrupt abandonment of handshakes and hugs. An expansion of personal space in public to six feet. And detailed conversations preceding any social plans about who else was invited and what risky behaviors they might have recently engaged in. Before the pandemic, any of these actions would have been considered rude, but over the past year, they became polite. Although etiquette has always had an undertone of safety first, during the pandemic, safety became the main point of politeness. More than 15 months, multiple lockdowns, and hundreds of millions of vaccine shots later, politeness is once again shifting as pandemic restrictions begin to scale back in America. For many people, this might feel like etiquette whiplash.

But politeness is always in flux—it doesn’t come and go so much as it morphs and adapts. For instance, when the well-known etiquette author, and my great-great-grandmother, Emily Post wrote her first book about politeness in 1922, a common practice at high-society dinner parties was to “turn a table”: The hostess would literally turn from speaking with the person on her right and begin to speak with the person on her left, and all the women at the table would follow suit. Today, we embrace free-flowing, omnidirectional conversation.

How we show politeness has also never been entirely universal. A friendly greeting might be ubiquitous, but what is considered the correct gesture to convey that sentiment—a handshake, fist bump, bow, or kiss on the cheek—might vary. Sometimes, what one person sees as considerate, another may find confusing or even offensive. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve had to state and restate our personal safety boundaries, wondering whether others will be sympathetic to our needs. You would think that we could come together over public safety, but this has become a political minefield.

Many of us are relieved and even thrilled to return to a more familiar world as the pandemic subsides, but find ourselves in a social gray area. In this transitional period, being polite has to once again evolve to accommodate both the new freedoms that the vaccines can provide and the reality that not everyone has been or will choose to get vaccinated. Some of us are living with the risk of still contracting COVID-19, and some of us aren’t.

So what does politeness look like as we come back together? Is it polite to state your vaccination status or ask others about theirs? The CDC says that social distancing is no longer needed if you’re fully vaccinated—does that mean you have to shake hands again? Do you wear a mask around the children who still need to wear them, or is that a gesture of encouragement that only their parents need to make?

Many people see etiquette as a tool for judgment—as rules that allow you to point at yourself and say “I am right” and point at others to say “You are wrong.” But that’s not what we at the Emily Post Institute suggest that you do. Instead, our guiding light is this idea: The point of good etiquette is to guide our own actions, not to judge others for theirs. Although we may not be able to control others’ opinions or behaviors, we can choose to use consideration, respect, and honesty to guide our own.

Here are three ways to navigate this transitional period with these timeless values in mind.

1. Let compassion guide you.

The first and most important piece of advice as you begin socializing more is to be compassionate. We’ve been trained over the past year to take precautions around one another, to be wary about our behavior and that of others. As we get to relax that a bit now, adopt an attitude of compassion toward those who either cannot yet get vaccinated, or who are struggling to reengage socially. Most of us haven’t exercised our social muscles in the past year; it’s worth paying attention to your own limits when socializing and to be gracious about the limits of others. If a party you were looking forward to leaves you feeling drained after just an hour, it’s okay to tap out with a polite “I apologize, I’m finding myself overwhelmed and need to head out early. Thank you so much for inviting me; it has been great to see you and everyone again.”

2. Ask away.

At the start of the pandemic, we had to ask about comfort levels and safety precautions when trying to socially distance our get-togethers. Continuing to ask about these things as we open back up is still good etiquette. Don’t second-guess. Just ask, “Are we hugging?” or say, “I’d love to have you over. Are you ready for indoor, maskless visits?” It’s also okay to inquire about someone’s vaccination status. Yes, it is a personal question, but one that the other person can politely decline to answer if they truly wish to (“I’m sorry, I’m not comfortable answering that question”), which we sometimes forget. Proceed gently by phrasing it this way: “May I ask if you have been vaccinated?” Or you can build guidelines for the unvaccinated into your social invitations: “We’d love you to come over Friday for pizza. We ask that if you aren’t yet vaccinated, you wear a mask and maintain social distance because the kids, who will also wear masks, are too young to get vaccinated.”

3. Make the statement and drop the judgment.

It’s okay to tell people that you’re fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, or not vaccinated at all. It’s vital information that churches, restaurants, and wedding venues in many states can require for entrance. It’s a matter of safety, and inquiring about it should not be considered rude. But if you’re the one asking, first reflect on why you need to know. The key to handling these conversations politely is for both sides to drop the judgment. If you’re fully vaccinated, you might wish that every other adult were as well; unfortunately, that’s not under your control. You may be unvaccinated and wish that it just didn’t matter to other people, but the reality is that it can have life-and-death stakes, especially if a person is caring for or living with someone who cannot get vaccinated or is immunocompromised. Accepting someone else’s status, and then modifying your behavior around it, is the polite thing to do. Clear communication in response is crucial. You can say, “I’m going to keep my mask on and keep a distance, since I’m not vaccinated,” or, “Thanks for asking. I’m still not hugging yet, but I’m so happy to see you!”

For the most part, being around others again has been a resounding relief. The world of playdates, sporting events, live music, sleepovers, and dining out is worth bringing our most positive and compassionate selves out for. Good etiquette can offer the comfort of knowing what is expected of us and what we can expect from others. It gives us a standard to guide us through an otherwise turbulent moment in our social history. And it will make our well-deserved, desperately needed encounters with one another so much better, if only we make the effort.