In the South, we are congenial folk, quick to offer a hug, a glass of sweet tea, and an inquiry about one’s mother. Our porches are open to passersby and we are always ready to add another plate to the dinner table.
But now, masks are mandated and social distancing is our new reality. Clearly, the rules of engagement have changed. Are social niceties dead? Is professional attire a thing of the past? Are relationships on hold indefinitely?
John Bridges, author of several popular etiquette books, including, How to be a Gentleman: A Timely Guide to Timeless Manners, says coping with COVID-19 is less about rules and political correctness than behaving civilly, having a bit of common sense, and staying the course.
What should you do when you are wearing a mask in public, but someone else isn’t?
Bridges: I just think you get out of their way. You get away from them. What else can you do? Some people think you should confront them, but why would you do that? That just forces a confrontation. No, you don’t want to do that. Just behave yourself. Behave yourself!
So you shouldn’t call people out who aren’t social distancing or wearing masks?
Bridges: Goodness, no! I mean, you can, but do you want them to punch you out? What’s the point of that? I suppose you could glare at them but confront them? No.
What if I’m invited to go out to dinner, and I just don’t feel comfortable?
Bridges: If you’re invited to something and you don’t feel comfortable going, I think you certainly have the reason or excuse that you are concerned about your health. I was invited to a dinner party a couple of weeks ago by some dear friends, and I had to say, “I love you, but no, I can’t.” And they weren’t insulted.
What are the rules for dating during a pandemic?
Bridges: I think it’s dangerous dating online, looking for somebody. If you are trolling then maybe trolls are what you’ll get. And if you are going to set up a date with them, how much of a date is that going to be? I suppose you can set up a video date, but what’s the point of it? Unless, of course, well, we don’t need to get into what might be going on off-screen!
What are the rules for manners in a Zoom (video conference) meeting?
Bridges: If you don’t know how to say hello to people, if you don’t know how to wait for another person to finish, if you don’t know how to follow an agenda, that’s a traditional problem. That’s a real life problem. True, it is difficult to keep people from talking over each other, but you have to learn to be patient and courteous. Courtesy is all that is.
What about attire for a Zoom meeting? Do I need to dress up?
Bridges: You see a lot of people in T-shirts, people who haven’t had a haircut, men who haven’t shaved, that kind of stuff. There’s no reason you shouldn’t dress up a little bit. At least dress neatly. Maybe cleanup the clutter in the room. It makes you feel better when you dress up a little bit. Today, this seersucker suit I’m wearing, I haven’t had it on in five months. Summer’s passing and I want to wear it. It makes me feel better.
If a friend has a quick wedding at the courthouse or in their backyard and sends out an announcement, do good manners require me to get them an expensive wedding gift?
Bridges: Only a few people can be invited to these things and if you weren’t invited I don’t think you necessarily have to send a gift. But if you want to send a gift, you can spend what you want. There are no real rules about that. I would say find out if they have a wedding registry, and select something from that. If they don’t, then simply call them up and ask what they need, or send over a bottle of wine. I have been reading about some of these small “COVID weddings” and some of them sound like they are really quite nice. A lovely private time with family.
There are so many people out there who deserve our thanks, especially frontline workers. What’s the best way to show appreciation?
Bridges: The best way to show your thanks is on a person-to-person basis. At the grocery store you should say “thank you,” as often as you can, but that’s what you ought to be doing anyhow if you have nice manners. If you want to give money to fundraisers or put signs in your yard, that’s good too, but I think the only way you can guarantee people are going to know you appreciate them is to tell them yourself. Putting things on social media is fine but really it can make you look like you are trying to pat yourself on the back and the frontline worker may never see it. Person to person is best.
Should we be tipping more during the pandemic, like when you get carryout?
Bridges: I probably am tipping pretty heavily these days because I go out one day a week to a restaurant and buy all my entrees for the next week. So I feel like it’s the right thing to tip pretty well on that. I don’t get food delivered, but if you order a pizza or some other meal delivered, I would say add a decent tip when you place the order and be sure to let the delivery person know you’ve done that. But it’s your decision to make.
What’s the best way to stay in touch with loved ones you are unable to visit due to health concerns?
Bridges: I think nothing beats a telephone call. Nothing. It’s important for them to hear your voice. And it’s important for you to use your voice to connect with them. That’s the best way to do it. If you struggle with knowing what to talk about, my suggestion is make a list of things that have happened recently so you have some good talking points. But you don’t have to talk for hours. I find myself cutting off conversations before I think they’ve gone on too long.
What’s the key to getting through these turbulent times?
Bridges: I know people have kids who aren’t in school but I also see kids out in the yard playing and at least that’s something. Even if we are on the precipice of some awful thing, we’ve got to remain in good spirits through this. Find the good. I compare it to the AIDS generation, going through that, it was such a sad thing, such a bad thing, such a deadly thing. Of course you were going to funerals all the time. But you had to keep upbeat through it. You couldn’t just jump off the cliff. I think it’s about realizing we may be at the edge, but don't jump off. Look, it’s going to be better. It just is. We just have to get through it.
How To Be A Gentleman: A Timely Guide to Timeless Manners, and other books by John Bridges, are available online and at Brooks Brothers Stores.