Social Distancing Etiquette


By: Maralee McKee

Social distancing etiquette is brand-new. But in the midst of the pandemic, we’ve had to create it to establish safe guidelines. Amid this distancing, how can you go out and about, interact graciously, and still set boundaries that help protect you and your family? Here are 15 social distancing etiquette tips to help you stay healthy and be a great friend and neighbor.

Social-Distancing Etiquette

1.  Stand 6 feet away from others when you talk to them. In the United States, and most of Europe, people naturally tend to stand only about 3 feet apart.

Why do we feel like they’re not invading our personal space when they’re just 3 feet from us?

It’s because that’s the typical distance between two people when they extend their arms to shake hands with one another. It’s become our built-in default setting.

But during this crisis, talk to one another at a further distance. The world’s experts have determined that coronavirus only spreads through tiny droplets that infected people exhale or cough or sneeze, and those germ droplets almost never travel more than 6 feet. Being 6 feet apart means you can still speak at your usual volume, but it does give you that extra distance from the person as you carry on a conversation. Every inch of space is helpful, although by no means is this, or any singular thing, a full measure of protection against the virus. We never know who is infected, since symptoms can be almost unnoticeable in many people.

2. Once anyone in your house, or someone you’ve been in close contact with, comes down with symptoms of the coronavirus, quarantine yourself and everyone in your home. Because it takes up to two weeks for this virus to have full effect, if someone you live with has symptoms, you could already be infected and just not know it yet.

And even though you may feel perfect today, if someone in your house is ill, you could unknowingly be spreading it to coworkers, friends, strangers, and everyone any of those people come near. 

Quarantining yourself is hard to do. But putting the health and safety of countless others above our momentary comfort is the right thing to do. (Besides, two weeks, in the scheme of life, is barely a bleep on the radar.)

3.  Greet others with your hands behind your back or in your pockets. Normally, these two things would be rude, but etiquette adapts to meet the needs of the people it’s serving, and until the coronavirus passes, this form of greeting is part of the new coronavirus etiquette.

Seeing your hands behind your back or in your pockets, other people are less likely to extend a hand to you. Just make sure you greet them with eye contact, a big smile, a warm verbal welcome, and use their names if you know them. These facial and verbal clues will help them know that you’re not being aloof. 

4.  If someone does extend a hand to you, say, “I believe I’m fine, but I don’t want to take the chance of passing along a virus to you.” Stating it this way gifts the other person with the benefit rather than extending the courtesy for your benefit, as would be the case if you said, “Forgive me for not shaking your hand since I don’t want to take the chance of catching a virus.”

5. Fist bumps are not as germ-spreading as handshakes, but the possibility is still there. Plus, fist bumps aren’t the norm in business settings (nor are variations on the fist bump such as the “chicken wing,” where you bump elbows with others). 

If offered a fist bump, you can certainly give one in return if you’re comfortable doing so, but don’t be the one initiating the contact in a business or formal social situation. 

6.  During the outbreak, video calls are best for in-person meetings. From an etiquette standpoint, the best meetings normally are the ones we have in-person because bonds are built fastest in-person. But during the outbreak, we need to remember that germs are spread in-person. That makes video calls a better choice than face-to-face meetings until we’re given the all-clear signal. 

Flu and Virus Etiquette — Tips for Keeping Yourself and Others Healthy 

7. Carry tissues instead of a handkerchief. And carry a zip-top bag. Don’t use a handkerchief. Every time you reach for it, you’re exposing all the germs on it. For disposable tissues, it’s a great idea to carry a zip-top baggie to put each tissue in after use. When you get home, you can throw the day’s tissues away sanitarily without anyone ever accidentally touching one. If it’s possible to use just one hand to hold the tissue, that is best; use your non-dominant hand. And wash your hands every time after you use a tissue.

8. Wash your hands frequently and well. I know you’ve heard “Wash your hands!” a million times, but this simple strategy works. Here’s how to make sure that you’ve washed your hands well. Silently “sing” the Happy Birthday song to yourself two times while washing your hands. When you finish the song the first time, add more soap to your hands, and repeat the song while continuing to wash your hands. 

Important note: Germs love to hide under our fingernails and behind any rings that we’re wearing. Make sure to pay special attention to these areas when washing your hands. 

9. Since childhood, if you’re older than about 35, we’ve wrongly been told to cover our noses and mouths with our hands when we cough or sneeze. But that’s just about the worst advice we could follow because they left out the part about the vital importance of having a tissue in our hands when we do so. 

Here are three better ways to handle the situation, keeping in mind that sneezing and coughing into a tissue is always the best choice. These are emergency backup plans for you’re caught off-guard without a tissue:

Good: Form your left hand (your right hand if you’re a lefty) into a fist and cough or sneeze into the ball of your fist where your thumb and first (index) finger meet. Why your left hand? It’s the one you use less often to handle items and hand things to others. Make sure to turn your head towards your shoulder, and don’t cough down on what’s in front of you — books, food, TV remote, etc. Also, pick your side! If there’s no one on your right, then turn your head to cough in the direction of your right shoulder, or vice-versa. Make sure that your hand is touching your face. We want anything we expel to end up on the side of our non-dominant hand. Now simply excuse yourself to go wash your hands. 

Better: Bend your arm and cough into the inner part of your elbow near the bicep. The downside of this method is that, unless you’re super limber, you’ll never get your nose and mouth close enough to the crook of your arm to catch all the germs. Plus, all the germs are now on your arm — accidentally bump into anyone or anything, and the germs spread.

Best: Cough into your shirt by holding the neckline gently over your face. Doing this will help keep the germs on you and prevent the droplets from being carried through the air to others. This is a great one for all of us to remember and to teach our children. (Note: This won’t work with a button-down shirt, but it will work with most other shirts and some dresses.)

Again, these three measures are for when you find yourself caught without a tissue! 

Flu and Virus Etiquette — How to Be a Great Friend and Neighbor

10. If you know a family or individual who has the flu, be a great neighbor. Offer to go to the grocery store for them, cook them a homemade casserole or two, or pick up to-go from a restaurant. Nutrition is doubly important when we’re sick, but it’s also the time where we can’t get to the store, and we don’t have the energy to cook. You don’t have to expose yourself to potential germs. Arrange in advance the time you’ll be at their house, text or call when you arrive, and then leave the food on their doorstep. They can pick it up as soon as you drop it off without you ever coming into contact with them. 

11. Call or text anyone you know who lives without close friends or family nearby to ask how they’re doing if there’s an outbreak in your area. If they become ill, they will be without help. You could literally turn out to be their lifeline. 

12. No one can help you if they don’t know you need help. If you or your family are quarantined and need help, put the word out on social media explaining your situation and needs. Most people love helping when they know how to be of assistance. 

13. Using the call-ahead method from number 11 above, help anyone who is ill spend waking hours focusing on something other than being sick. To do this, you could drop off a few magazines, a light-read novel, a new bottle of nail polish, an easy word-search puzzle book, an adult coloring book and a tin of colored pencils, or a list of some of your favorite TV shows or movies that the person might not have discovered. When someone is in bed without energy, these non-taxing brain activities help distract from the person’s physical ailments without having to expend too much energy. 

14. Make plans to give your friend who is ill something to look forward to doing. When we’re sick, we’re stuck in the moment. It’s natural to feel like we’ll never feel better. You can help your sick friend or loved one by making tentative plans for when the person is well. Say something like, “Zoe, as soon as you’re better, let’s have breakfast on a Saturday morning at that new restaurant you like so much.” Or say, “…let’s grab some coffee and stroll around the park at Lake Harrison.” Anything the person enjoys doing is perfect for you to suggest. There are more suggestions in my post Manners for When You or Someone You Know is Sick.

15. Don’t allow social distancing to become social isolation for yourself or others. The media quickly latched on the word “social-distancing” to describe how we should maintain a safe distance from others. It would have been better if they had chosen “physical distancing.” Because while we do need to physically remain a safe distance from others, we don’t need to socially isolate ourselves in the digital age we live. More than two million people have downloaded in the last month. If you’re unfamiliar with, it’s a video phone platform. And while there are others like Facetime, Google Hangouts, and Discord, Zoom, in my experience, is the easiest to use. Many of our older senior citizens can even download it themselves, and if you set-up the call, they can understand that all they need to do is click on the email link they’ll receive from Zoom. And when we’re seen and heard, we no longer feel isolated, because we aren’t isolated.   

General Resources to Keep You Up-to-Date

For best practices as the coronavirus situation develops, click here to visit the coronavirus sites of the CDC and of Johns Hopkins University.

To keep updated on the spread of the virus, click here to visit this page also from Johns Hopkins University.

Click here to visit the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As hand sanitizer becomes harder to find, you might be tempted to try one of the many do-it-yourself recipes online to make your own. However, according to this LA Times article, you could be harming yourself. So know all the facts and do some research before making a decision. 

A Note Before You Go

This virus is on a 24/7 news cycle. It can seem like it’s the only thing happening in the world right now, and that can be scary. It might not be easy to get through, but please know that it will pass. All bad things pass eventually — either by being rebuilt or by our adjusting to a sad situation and moving forward.

If you’re overly concerned, step away from the news and start a work project you’ve put off, clean out the closet you’ve been meaning to organize, read a new book.

Do anything but watch the news. Our fears can suck us into it, and it can suddenly become a harmful addiction.

Sure, you can keep informed, but limit yourself to 20 minutes a day maximum. That’s more than enough time to keep up with anything you need to know, but it doesn’t become the focus of your day. Take in about ten-minutes of news in the morning, and about ten-minutes after dinner. In this way, you’ll know what has happened overnight and during the current day.

Spend the rest of your day doing what you did before you ever heard the word of this virus. The time will soon come when just like SARS and the Swine flu before it, this virus will be nothing but a distant memory. 

Blessings and stay healthy,


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