Updated: Jan 8
Picture this: you’re in a grocery store, buying essential provisions to last for the next week. You’re wearing a mask, you have a list so you can shop quickly and efficiently, and you’re carefully following the directional arrows.
Suddenly you see another shopper coming towards you, not following those arrows and going the wrong way.
You’re half-way down the aisle. What do you do?
The COVID-19 pandemic has created countless varieties of uncomfortable social situations, and we are all learning how to navigate them.
In ordinary times, humans rely on etiquette to help guide us. Oxford Languages defines etiquette as “the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.”
One of the best-known authorities on etiquette, Emily Post, says its principles are consideration, respect, and honesty. But still, says the Emily Post Institute: “we think first about safety and then about how to be kind and considerate and respectful when trying to be safe. Safety comes before etiquette. This doesn’t mean we toss consideration, respect, and honesty out the window … [what] it means is that how we interact and what is deemed ‘polite’ or ‘acceptable’ behavior will change during this time.”
We’ve found many helpful resources online where behavioral scientists, infectious disease specialists and etiquette experts share their suggestions for dealing with a wide range of COVID-related situations.
Here are a few ideas, drawn from their expertise, for how you might handle the aisle situation:
Step 1: Think Ahead
Many experts recommend that the first solution for grocery shoppers is to ask someone with authority — a store clerk or manager — to talk with the person who is not following the rules. This strategy is ideal for when you see a customer not wearing a mask, an employee not wearing a mask properly, or someone picking up and putting back items or produce. But unless there is a store employee actually in the aisle with you, that strategy won’t help in the arrow situation.
The experts also recommend doing what you can to protect yourself; for example, moving so that you put as much space as possible between you and the other person (difficult in a grocery store aisle), or leaving the area. If there is no one behind you and you are close to the far end of the aisle, you could move backwards out of the aisle, go to the next aisle, and then return when the person has left the aisle you need.
Step 2: Can You “let it go?”
In an excellent interview with NPR, the founder of the Swann School of Protocol (an etiquette training institute), Elaine Swann says the only time you should speak up is if a person’s behaviour is directly affecting your safety. "If their behaviour is not affecting you, let it go," she says.
"Folks are getting into these arguments and kerfuffles because they're trying to get folks to comply with the pandemic guidelines. Stop trying to do that if the person does not want to comply. You have to let crazy be crazy and leave them alone," Swann says.
The Emily Post Institute writes that: “While following the guidance of the arrows and directions through stores is always important, it’s not worth getting into an altercation over. Either pass, doing what you can to keep your distance, or go back the other way if the aisle isn’t crowded. Don’t make a stand when there are other safe options.”
In an interview with NPR’s Pranav Baskar, Harvard Medical School physician Dr. Abraar Karan also says in some cases, it’s OK to take steps to protect yourself rather than speaking up — a strategy he likens to “defensive driving.”
Step 3: Show Mutual Consideration
Let’s say you have considered the first two steps, but the person in the aisle is coming closer — and you have decided you need to speak up.
How do you speak up effectively?
The number one recommendation from all experts is to speak in a kind manner, and in a calm voice.
You want to avoid offending the other person, or making them feel criticized, or making them feel like they are being attacked.
Dr. Karan says shaming never works: "The key here is to be kind and communicate your concerns clearly without stigmatizing others or making them feel like they are at fault.”
Remember that it’s always possible the other person genuinely didn’t see the arrows. They might be distracted by anxiety, or they might have lost a job — or they might be so focused on getting what’s on their list that they have temporarily forgotten to check the arrows.
Remember there might have been times when you started down an aisle the wrong way, too.
Elaine Swann recommends you try using works like “we" and "us," and she provides some examples in her convenient, printable Pocket Guide to COVID-19 Etiquette.
Drawing on all of these recommendations, you might:
stop six feet away from the other shopper
take a deep breath and smile (even though it’s behind your mask, it will still make you feel kind and relaxed)
look at the other person
say, “Let’s just make sure we are both following the arrow for this aisle,” or “I think the arrow shows we’re supposed to be going the other direction in this aisle.”
Swann says showing mutual consideration “tells others you are thinking about how your behaviour is affecting their health, and expresses hope that they are concerned with your safety, too.”
Here are some other examples of phrases you might use in similar situations:
In an Associated Press story called How Do I Politely Ask Someone to Wear a Mask?, etiquette expert Diane Gottsman suggests saying something like, “For your safety and mine, I would feel much more comfortable if we were both wearing masks.”
In an article in Men’s Health by Michael Steele, Robert Cialdini (author of the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion), suggests an approach like: “Excuse me. You look like a caring person. Would you be willing to wear this mask to protect my health?” Cialdini also suggests adding, “Of course, it’s completely up to you,” or “Of course, it’s your choice” — he says studies show that adding a compliment can produce significant increases in people willing to say yes to what you ask of them.
A series of YouTube videos by Joseph Grenny, author of Crucial Conversations and cofounder of VitalSmarts, shares tips and resources on how to speak up about COVID-related issues including physical distancing and mask wearing.
Most importantly, the experts agree that you really only have control over yourself. By following the protocols in place to protect us all, you are serving as a role model and helping to establish this etiquette as the new social norm.
That’s important, because we are facing many more months of pandemic.
And, when restrictions are lifted, COVID-19 etiquette will only become more complicated. Here are some additional helpful resources:
The article What Can I Say to Someone Who Isn't Wearing a Mask? on KidsHealth.org has been written to help guide parents.
The article The New Rules of Covid-Etiquette: Be Awkward, Not Rude on Bloomberg.com includes suggestions for dealing with a wide range of social and business situations.