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How to Handle Social Distancing Rule Breakers, According to Etiquette Experts

Faced with a rampant rule breaker? These tips will keep your safety—and your dignity—covered.

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Rule breakers have more fun…

…but not during COVID-19. Now more than ever, it’s important to follow the specific guidelines set by health experts to protect both yourself and others from the virus. But what should you do if you happen to run into a rule breaker, whether they be intentional about it or not? Keeping these tips in mind will ensure a smooth transition into the post-coronavirus world we find ourselves living in.

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Use your words

Sometimes, the most simple solutions are the ones that are the most often overlooked. If someone is breaking social distancing rules around you, explain to them why you would rather follow the guidelines.

“Back up [your reasoning] with facts,” says Jennifer Tomko, a psychotherapist at Clarity Health Solutions. “Sometimes education can help change someone’s mind.” Although this approach may not always work, as Tomko notes, it’s worth a try before deciding whether or not to remove yourself from the situation.

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Businesswoman waiting in the queue for temperature check in officeLuis Alvarez/Getty Images

Avoid direct confrontation

In handling uncomfortable situations such as this one, it’s always best to be polite. Using a kind tone of voice rather than a harsh one can go a long way.

“The best advice when dealing with social distance rule breakers is to assume (or at least pretend) the infraction is innocent and not malicious and to use a tone that’s nonjudgemental and value-neutral,” says Nick Leighton, etiquette expert at wereyouraisedbywolves.com.

Tomko agrees: “Try to reserve your impulse to harshly correct others. This often just turns into a conflict.”

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Give the benefit of the doubt

While it’s true that some people have decided to not wear masks or social distance to make a statement, that’s not the case for every person sans face protection.

“For people who aren’t wearing masks or stand too close or go to a friend’s house, they aren’t all trying to prove something. It could be simply that they forgot to get their mask, which is lying on the passenger seat in their car,” explains Jennifer Lynn, an etiquette and elegance expert for elegantlivingeveryday.com. “Or maybe if they aren’t social distancing it is because it’s not natural for them and they keep forgetting. A gentle reminder is all that is needed and if they resist, then it’s on you to diffuse the situation by either walking away or moving on.”

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Colleagues decision together in the skyscraper office. They are wearing medical face mask during spread of virus.Nitat Termmee/Getty Images

Don’t do it all on your own

If you’re in a professional setting, it’s often best to report issues to management rather than try to deal with fellow employees or colleagues on your own. Certain places of work are even implementing policies where you don’t need to report rule breakers by name. Rather, tell your boss that someone in the workspace may not be following proper guidelines.

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Take a step back

And we mean literally. If you’re in a situation where someone isn’t respecting the six-foot rule, take either a physical step back or if that doesn’t work, cross your arms and lean back with your body.

“This will subtly give other people a hint that you don’t want to be too close,” says Lynn. Body language is especially important since it’s difficult to read facial expressions due to masks. We’re taking the phrase “body talk” to a whole new level.

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Pensive African American woman with face mask using laptop in the living room.Drazen Zigic/Getty Images

Only focus on what you can control

The pandemic isn’t just a trying time for our physical health; it’s also taking a toll on our mental health, as well. Reminding yourself to only focus on the things in your control will make for a happier and healthier brain.

“Remember, we have no control over other people’s decisions,” reminds Tomko. “So spare yourself the frustration of other people’s behaviours by knowing that you are doing your best to stay safe, and that’s the best you can do.” We could all use a little positive reinforcement right about now.

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Just walk away

“If you’re in a situation where you feel unsafe, it is acceptable to remove yourself as diplomatically as possible,” says Ken Eulo, founding partner at Smith & Eulo Law Firm.

Lynn backs this up, explaining, “If you can move away yourself, then do so. It is not worth it right now to be stubborn and force people to change.” So if at all possible, turn on that heel and walk the other way.

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Two people with protective mask walking on the street in safe distanceSouth_agency/Getty Images

Don’t take things personally

Remember that this is an unprecedented time. If somebody is breaking a social distancing rule, chances are they’re not doing it with malicious intent to harm you. The same thing goes for those that are following the rules and don’t go in for the usually typical huge or handshake.

“We as a society are so accustomed to greeting people with a handshake, hug, or kiss on the cheek. We won’t be doing that anymore, at least not in the near future. Don’t interpret this as people being rude or unfriendly,” says Tomko. It’s not all about you.

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Take the lead

These crazy times can often make for awkward encounters. By taking the lead in a conversation or interaction and portraying a sense of confidence and safety, you’ll make the other person in the situation feel that much better.

“It’s still important to greet others professionally. Make great eye contact as soon as possible, stop at a safe distance, smile, and acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation,” says Anne Corley Baum, a business etiquette expert. “Introduce yourself, smile, nod, and move on to the business at hand. When you take charge of the situation, it puts the other person at ease, demonstrates confidence, and helps what could be an uncomfortable situation move forward smoothly.”

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Visiting quarantined mother, communicating through a glass window

Be compassionate

Above all else, being compassionate and patient with both yourself and others is of the utmost importance during this time. Frame your thinking around this timeless quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

“Have compassion for those who are not following the guidelines,” says Dr. Diane Thompson, medical director of behavioural health at Centura Health. “They may not be able to do so due to a disability or lack of understanding—we don’t know their story.”

Lynn agrees, saying, “Be patient in a time like this, always give the benefit of the doubt, and stop feeling that there needs to be someone or something to hate. Your anger and impatience will rub off on others and it’s important to spread love and appreciation.”

Outweigh the negativity of the COVID-19 crisis by responding with a positive attitude. It sounds cheesy, but it really will make a world of difference.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest