Your Politeness Is a Public Health Hazard

Photo: Sisoje/Getty

HeHe had to have heard me the first time. My voice is naturally loud, and I know it carries. Plus, I’d made it a point to enunciate so he would understand me from halfway down the aisle.

But still, he says, “What?” and walks toward me. I repeat myself quickly. “Sorry, what?” he says again, taking more steps that bring him well within six feet of me.

“Where can I find canned tuna?” I ask for a third time, my belly tight, blood starting to pump in a fight-or-flight kind of way. It’s the last thing on my long list of pantry staples, and I’m desperate to finish, get out of this store full of strangers, and retreat to the safety of my own home.

The employee, now standing way too close, gestures to a shelf a few feet down the aisle — basically right in front of my face. And then he laughs, and I flinch, instantly thinking about all the droplets he’s just sent sailing into the air between us.

A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have given the exchange a second thought. I’d have laughed back, made a self-deprecating joke, maybe sparked a quick conversation. I’m extroverted like that. But in the midst of a global health crisis, this tiny nothing of an interaction makes me deeply uneasy. Still, I never ask him to step back, and I don’t step away myself. I’d never dream of putting up an outstretched arm and saying, “That’s close enough.” Obviously, I don’t want to be rude. Especially to a grocery-store employee who’s working through this pandemic.

Even now, when the rules of daily life have been wholly rewritten by social distancing, I — like so many of us — am still strangely beholden to politeness.

Politeness is the default

Most people will automatically defer to manners during moments of discomfort. In more ordinary times, that may mean returning an embrace, even if you’re not a “hugger” or inviting an unexpected visitor inside when you don’t actually want them in your house.

Sometimes politeness is a little more strenuous and pushes people to let an insulting or inappropriate comment go even when its speaker really deserves to be told off. For example, Stephanie Gravalese, a marketing professional from Massachusetts, often feels compelled to ignore racially tinged microaggressions about her hair: “I have big, curly, very thick … I guess I’d just call it ‘non-white’ hair,” she says. “People comment on it constantly.”

Politeness can even be dangerous. True crime and #MeToo narratives are full of stories about women ignoring an internal alarm bell for fear of being rude.

And now, that fear has morphed into a new type of danger: Every interaction unsuccessfully avoided is an opportunity for virus-laden droplets to spread from a cough, a conversation, or a laugh.

Detrimental politeness, right now, looks like not immediately snapping when a stranger reaches down to pet your dog. Or not taking several steps back when your neighbor stops to chat on the sidewalk. Or gamely playing along when your friend brings a Frisbee on your socially distant walk. It means continuing to observe the same social rules that, just a few weeks ago, we followed without a second thought.

Politeness is in our DNA

Politeness drives us to prioritize the feelings of other people, sometimes strangers, over our own safety. And sure, you can argue that our relationships with other people will outlast this pandemic, as will the memories of bruised egos and hurt feelings. But that’s only true if we make it to the other side. Besides, in the case of Covid-19, politeness can mean jeopardizing other people’s safety, too.

Still, the habit is hard to break. Part of our tendency toward politeness is biologically hardwired. According to Thomas Holtgraves, a professor of psychological science at Ball State University, politeness is an evolutionary tool that humans have long used for self-preservation.

“We’re more likely to be polite to people we don’t know,” Holtgraves says. “With strangers, we don’t know how threatening they could be. We go overboard to make it clear we’re not being threatening. We really mitigate what we’re saying to make sure they don’t take offense because we don’t know how they’ll respond.”

Typically, deploying that kind of politeness can help you defuse an uncomfortable situation. “It’s second nature: You don’t think about being polite; you just kind of do it,” Holtgraves says. “There are cultural and individual differences, but it’s largely an automatic thing.” Politeness is not a purely learned behavior; rather, it’s something that our species has relied on to survive. Which makes it all the more ironic that it’s now putting us in harm’s way.

Politeness doesn’t have to mean suffering in silence

Of course, if having a person too close to you is uncomfortable, the idea of telling them to back off might be even more anxiety-inducing. Luckily, says Holtgraves, an expert on linguistic politeness, we don’t always have to be so blunt.

“All languages allow you to say things indirectly,” he says. You can get your point across without diminishing or embarrassing the other person. In fact, gently communicating what you need makes it more likely that they’ll listen.

Maximal directness “tends to impose on people, and they feel somewhat downgraded,” Holtgraves says. “So, what we do is use some degree of indirectness which attends to the person’s identity” (read: protects them from feeling like a jerk). Telling the person behind you in the checkout line to step back may make them defensive; instead, you might simply point out the markers, six careful feet apart, that many stores are beginning to put on the floors near their registers.

“The meaning is pretty clear, but you’re also saying, ‘I recognize your value as a person, and that’s why I’m phrasing it this way,’” Holtgraves says. “It’s this sort of dance we do.”

But, he adds, not everyone will get it. “There are ways of being polite that can get pretty vague, and the meaning can be missed.”

In those cases, it’s best to clarify why you’re doing what you’re doing. Even the etiquette pros agree: Now is not the time to let your meaning be misunderstood. If you need to be direct, be direct with explanation, says Jacqueline Whitmore, who wrote the professional-etiquette book Poised for Success and runs the Protocol School of Palm Beach.

When I encounter people now, I say, ‘You know, I’d shake your hand, but I want to keep you safe,’” she says. “I make it like I don’t want to put them at risk, and people are generally understanding about that.”

At the moment, Holtgraves and Whitmore agree, the best way to be both polite and safe is to simply avoid interactions, to whatever extent that’s possible. If you’re worried you might choose being nice over being careful, do what you can to prevent that choice from coming up in the first place.

“I go on a morning walk, and if I see someone coming my way, I’ll wave to them and cross the street,” Whitmore says. “We’re having to make the rules for politeness and socializing in this time up as we go, but I feel like people will find other ways to show affection. I blow kisses, and I wave.”

Gravalese is currently hewing closely to the avoidance method. “My partner is a transplant recipient and immunosuppressed,” she says. “For now, we don’t leave the house. We do not interact with other people.” When she recalls shaking dozens of hands at an industry event in California last month, her voice is tinged with fear. “It was a natural thing, to be there in a group, shaking hands, connecting with this community of people I’d been invited to spend time in,” she says. But, just weeks later, the thought of being that close to strangers makes her very ill at ease.

The future of politeness

How will this abrupt new normal change our post-pandemic life? “I worry about community loss,” Gravalese says. “I think a lot about how we’re going to navigate things like that afterward.”

Holtgraves isn’t as concerned. Ultimately, he believes that while we can alter our habits, we can’t override our fundamental nature. “Politeness won’t disappear, but I think it will evolve,” he says. “I think it’s a good possibility we’ll become more dependent on language than on physical touch. I think there’ll be lingering concern [about disease], and we’ll evolve to deal with that.”

It remains to be seen how this pandemic will change our social norms over the long term. But while the handshake may never return to its pre-Covid-19 popularity, Holtgraves says, the weakening of some rituals only means the rise of others. “There will need to be something to replace it,” he says. “We’ll always be dependent on some kind of etiquette; some show of politeness.” Hopefully, we’ll just be smarter about what that looks like.

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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