Q&A: Thomas Farley, Mister Manners, on etiquette in the age of coronavirus

Apr 09, 2020

Mister Manners, Thomas P. Farley, is an etiquette expert, speaker and author who teaches clients and audiences to master communication strategies for success. He has solutions for sticky scenarios in both work and home. Clients have included the United States Department of Commerce, the Estée Lauder Companies, JPMorgan Chase and the U.S. Army. A resident of Manhattan, Thomas understands that anxiety accompanying the Coronavirus makes it challenging for people to practice good etiquette. “While we socially distance, it’s vital we tap into the power of kindness, courtesy and consideration," he says "Without them, our culture—indeed, our very way of life—will never heal.”

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Mister Manners, Thomas P. Farley  is an etiquette expert and speaker. Farley is a regular guest on the NBC Today show, where he fields questions on matters of modern-day etiquette. He is now addressing issues of manners in the age of Corona. Farley, who lives in Manhatten,  understands that the anxiety accompanying the Coronavirus makes it challenging for people to remember kindness, courtesy and consideration.

Good morning, everyone, and thanks so much for being here. Thanks for all of the great questions thus far! I'll be posting replies starting at 11.

Should you admonish your friends and relatives who continue to go to multiple groceries looking for all their favorite items in this crisis? Experts tell us to not go if possible and if you must go just go once a week to one store.

Admonish is a strong word and yet, these are frightening times. Unless the individual is mentally unwell and incapable of making an informed decision, there be little you can do to stop those who insist on going about their lives as normal--even in these far-from-normal times.

It may also be that they are going to the grocery store multiple times per week because they feel there is no other option. For example, I live in New York City, and with our kitchens often being quite small, there is no room for a week's (or two) worth of groceries.

If you are healthy and able, and these are elderly individuals who live relatively close to you, perhaps you could offer to do some shopping for them? If they are also healthy and able, perhaps you could set up a "shopping pool," where you each take a week to purchase enough groceries for yourself and the other person.

Regardless, do stay safe--wearing gloves and a mask while you are out shopping. And don't forget to thank the cashiers and other employees at the grocery stores, who are literally ensuring we all have food to eat at this time.

I wave at everyone in their cars. I say hello when I see fellow walkers across the street. I cross the street first when I see folks on the same side. I shout hello to neighbors working in their yard. We may not know each other but we can see and care about each other.

I think that's so terrific. We may be physically distancing from one another, but I think that the concept of "social distancing" has been taken too far in the sense that many of those who are out and about at the grocery store or elsewhere are looking at the people around them like they just came from the leper colony. It is not a one-or-the-other equation...we can still physically distance without socially alienating. Keep up the good work!

In the grocery, I stand back and wait while others make their selections, then I step forward when there’s adequate room. Immediately another woman moves right next to me at the shelf. How do we best ask others to give us our safe distance while holding our ground? If I keep moving away I’ll never get the shopping done.

I know what you mean. This seems to be a particular issue for me in the yogurt aisle, as other shoppers spend what I'd classify as an interminable amount of time examining labels...as if it was the first time in their lives they had ever seen yogurt!

I'm all for minding the ingredients of what we eat, but we must also be mindful of the people around us waiting to get to the same products.

In your case, you are considerately waiting while others blithely stride up and take your spot without acknowledging your patient presence. Giving them a very generous benefit of the doubt, it may be that they simply do not realize you are waiting. Have you tried using your grocery cart as a buffer, hemming yourself in to a safe zone so no one else can approach while you are making your selection? If that is not practical, if you see someone striding up to the shelf with their eyes on the prize and paying no attention to you, I would nicely nip that in the bud and say something along the lines of "Good morning. I believe I'm next for this shelf, but I'll be done in just a moment."

In other coronavirus coverage, I wrote this story about practical ideas for dealing with the virus while cleaning and doing laundry at home. Read it here.

I am now tipping people who bring take out and groceries to my door. Is it rude to leave it in an envelope on the porch for them? I don't really want to be in contact with them to hand them a bill. But I also don't want to be rude.

This is a great question, and I think there are a few ways you can address the issue. The first is to inquire when placing your order whether you can leave a tip in advance on your credit card. Many delivery companies and restaurants have established "contactless delivery" as a means of safeguarding the health of their customers and their employees, providing a nice easy, solution for the dilemma you pose.

For establishments that do not offer an option to pay a tip in advance, I would use a fresh, clean envelope for the cash and include a thank-you message on the envelope itself. Something along the lines of "Thank you for doing the work you do. It is so appreciated--especially at this time."

Tape the envelope to the door, clearly marked for them. I assure you, far from thinking you are rude, they will very much appreciate the gesture.

This is also a time to be extra generous with our tips--providing, of course, that your own financial means still allow.

Is there any etiquette as to how to participate in Zoom without being rude? People sort of talk all at the same time.

I  have experienced that also, and I must say, Zoom is one of the better platforms for diminishing the issue you describe. And yet, it is still a widespread issue, particularly as we are all learning best practices for video conferencing.

I'm actually putting together a course called "Being Your Best Virtual Self," which I'll be offering to companies. Among the ways to avoid the "everyone talking at once" phenomenon are:

  • Designating one person to be the host of the call, particularly if is a business call. All microphones should by default be muted until the time has come for questions/input.

  • Using the "raise hand" feature when people want to talk. Or, if the group is less formal (a group of friends or family members), consider a signal that you have something to say...whether an actual raised hand on camera or even a little homemade sign that says "I have something to say."

  • Make sure everyone is on "gallery view"....I call it "Brady Bunch View" so that all participants can see others and not have to scroll down a line to see every participant. This should also help prevent cross-talk.

We'll get better at this...it's just going to take some time...and patience! :)

Mr. Manners: Please help. Too many people in the grocery store and outdoors are *not* abiding by the physical distancing guidelines, which ought to be requirements but aren’t. This applies in particular to joggers (get your heavy exhalations out of my face), bikers (ditto, but 100% ruder than joggers), and people who insist on strolling as a group. I have news for the group-strollers: with your crowding together on the sidewalk, you are forcing me to walk in the street and face vehicular traffic. It’s enough to spin a person into a permanent state of misanthropy.

I understand your issue completely. I live in Manhattan, and in normal times, the level of obliviousness to others on the sidewalk or in a park is surprising. But even more so during this pandemic.

This matter, I'm afraid, is not one that we can adequately correct. The considerate folks seem to be far outnumbered by the oblivious ones--particularly in the parks.

If I were you, I would continue to lead by example, hoping that (some!) will take the hint and curtail their own lack of distancing. But knowing that not everyone will change their ways, I would select other times during the day to go outside...when the streets, sidewalks, grocery stores and parks are less crowded. I've been doing that myself when I need to go out, and I find it very calming during these challenging times to have a normally crowded space nearly to myself.

Is this something that will be more common in our culture? Especially in cities ? Should you ask when you come to a person’s home if you should take your shoes off?

Although I haven't heard too much about removing shoes as a strategy for preventing Corona spread, I do support the idea of making your city dwelling a shoe-free home. This is a means not just of preventing germs but it's also a must for cutting down noise if you are in an apartment building and have downstairs neighbors. This is particularly true as more of us are working from home. You don't want to disturb someone below you who may be on a work call or trying to put a baby to sleep.

I actually did an episode of Dr. Oz all about taking off one's shoes. Worth checking out if you have the chance!

Once we are safely able to visit these favorite places, will extra tipping be necessary or expected?

I am so glad you asked this question. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Consider the amount of money we are all saving while not having our roots touched up, our abs pushed to the limit, our nails looking terrific...

And conversely, thinking about the massive amount of income those same providers are losing during this time.

So yes, absolutely...if you are financially able, be extra generous when you get to see them again after a long time away

What do you say/do so that you don’t hurt their feelings?

I would have thought were beyond this dilemma by now, though it was a scenario I encountered a lot in the early days (pre-distancing).

If someone puts out their hand now, I would smile and use any one of the safer (and farther away) alternatives to a handshake. I think my favorite is the "Namaste bow." Either way, no one should have hurt feelings for not having a handshake returned in the age of Corona. These are extraordinary times, and they call for extraordinary measures.

Besides a big thank you note on my porch, can/should we tip them?

As a matter of practice, UPS and Fedex drivers do not get tipped. The same goes for your letter carrier. Only at the holidays would you consider a tip for a regular delivery person.

During these unusual times, for a small package or envelope, a tip is still not expected. With that being said, if the driver is bringing your new treadmill up four flights of stairs, I would DEFINITELY tip!

If you'd like a break from coronavirus coverage, check out this story from the Washington Post Magazine on a renovation in Washington's Bloomingdale neighborhood that blends Indian and Scandinavian style. Read it here.

I have worn my homemade fabric mask only once already for my weekly trip to the market. I felt so awkward. I was smiling under my mask, thanking stock people. But they cant see my face. Do we just try and use our words more? Any tips?

Great question! I would learn how to "smize"--that's smiling with your eyes. Supermodel Tyra Banks is the master of this, and you can find her how-to videos online. In the interim, keep smiling--with your eyes and mouth. We need more friendly faces at this time!

Thomas, Do you foresee that the handshake and hugs will largely disappear as we transition out of COVID-19 epidemic. And I'm speaking largely in terms of business, organizational and even institutional etiquette, not simply individual. Or is it once again, business/manners as usual? Also what would be your recommendation(s)? Thank you. - MAVD

I happen to be a big handshake fan (it's an time-honored custom, dating as far back as ancient Egypt). So I'm rooting for its return...once it's entirely safe to do so, of course. Time will tell, but I'm guessing that a 21st century pandemic will not undo millennia of tradition.

Most people in my neighborhood aren't going from store to store looking for their favorites. They are looking for staples and necessities like diapers, first aid supplies, distilled water (for cpap machines), baby wipes, flour, toilet paper, eggs, and milk, because their neighbors have already cleaned out the shelves. I saw someone on Nextdoor yesterday trying to give away the extra milk she bought a week or two ago because, shocker, she couldn't finish it before it would go bad.

That's good to hear. This is not the time to go to five stores to hunt down one's favorite brand of cookies. Or to have seventeen weeks' supply of hot dogs. The less we all have to go to the store (and the less time we spend inside the store) the better.

I'm worried we will never be able to have people over for dinner again. How can Zoom gatherings fill that role? And meanwhile, what is the etiquette for speaking in a Zoom gathering of a dozen or more people? Everyone seems always to be interrupting.

I, too, long for dinner parties. And Broadway shows and baseball games and all other sorts of gatherings that bring us together!

Zoom is Band-Aid but by no means a substitute for seeing people in person. I don't know how long it will take (I'll leave that to the experts) but we WILL get back to getting together in-person and in groups again. I'm counting on it. (In the interest of time and so I can get to everyone's great questions, please check the thread for my previous answer with Zoom tips.)

Latest advice from the experts is to NOT wear gloves while shopping. You are just spreading any virus around. Instead, wash your hands before leaving your house, and use hand sanitizer after shopping before you touch your car or steering wheel. But if you insist on wearing gloves, for the love of all that's holy don't drop them in the parking lot or leave them in the carts! Who do you think is going to clean up after you?? Don't do that.

I haven't heard that, but thank you for sharing. I will check into it. And I wholeheartedly agree...dispose of your gloves safely and appropriately. That goes for face masks, too. Give a hoot, don't pollute!

How to deal with millennials who are very "told you so" and admonishing of some of us boomers who were not so quick to appreciate the impact of this pandemic?

For people who were naysayers but who now are believers, I would have the integrity to admit that they underestimated the scope of what this would become.

With that said, an "okay Boomer" taunt does nothing to help the current situation, and no one--Millennial or otherwise--should be using the scourge of this pandemic as an opportunity to score debate points. We are all in this together, and learning and adapting together also.  There is nothing to be gained by gloating about how right you were.

You should come back again in a few months to update as things change.

Good idea.

My daughter's wedding is planned for August 1. What are the possibilities of it really happening that day? And what should she do in the meantime. Only "Save the Dates" have gone out so far, not the actual invitations.

My fingers are triply crossed for you and your daughter. And though I don't have the expertise to predict where we will be with this epidemic come August, it seems there is a very good chance that some changes will have to be made to the original plans. (Particularly if this was a destination wedding.) I think a "Save the Date" is great, but I would use her wedding website as a means of providing ongoing updates for invited guests. There are just so many unknowns at this stage. (Not to mention that many prospective guests are going to be severely hurting financially this summer and perhaps unable to afford attending a wedding even if distancing rules are relaxed by then.)

But I am hopeful your daughter's wedding day is as wonderful as she envisioned. And if distancing rules are relaxed by then, I assure you, your friends and family will be VERY ready for a celebration.

on Reddit, and maybe elsewhere, the name Karen is used disparagingly to designate people (most often women) who decide to be the arbiter of proper behavior to the point of calling police. e.g., it was apparently Karen who called the police about Henry Louis Gates 'breaking into' his own home, ending with his arrest. Karen saw that, but Karen never noticed Mr. Gates being her neighbor...for 20 years. At any rate, this lockdown scenario is perfect for bringing out the Karen in all of us. How do we resist?

I am familiar with that pejorative use of the name Karen, and first and foremost feel bad for anyone named Karen who has to deal with such name prejudice.

I would focus on bringing out the best in yourself as opposed to the worst in yourself, and let's start by not referring to our worst selves as being "a Karen." It's tough, as there is so much anxiety, stress and changing information right now. Many of us have loved ones who are sick or have died. We are working from home. Our children are schooling from home. We are not seeing our friends and extended family.

In other words, yes, we are living in awful, tough times...but still, you must strive to be the best you you can be. Set the example. We all need that from one another now more than ever.

I walk my dog in my suburban neighborhood. My dog is very friendly and has been routinely petted by the friendly neighbors we encounter, especially the kids and the older adults. I am concerned that under the current circumstances, this is not a good idea, but I don't want to offend these people either by suggesting they are trying to spread illness. What is an appropriate way to advise them that right now we are skipping having other people in close, cuddly contact with our dog?

This is a time for all of us to be understanding and respectful of social distancing guidelines. I know how challenging that can be--particularly with a dog who hasn't heard a peep about Corona!

It may be that choosing to walk the dog at different times of the day (when fewer people are out and about) or in a different area (where there are fewer walkers) might help.

But if a passerby fails to respect the recommended social distance, I would not demur from letting the person know--in as nice a manner as possible--that you are distancing, and request that they say hello from an appropriate number of feet away. You can say your goodbyes with the wish that you look forward to meeting them on the street after all this is over, at which time they will be more than welcome to pet your canine companion once again.

Thanks, all for the terrific questions. I hope I was able to provide some helpful information for you as we all grapple with the scourge of this pandemic together. Courtesy and consideration will help us carry the day, and I know all of you will help mightily in that effort. If you're interested in learning more on this topic, I've been speaking a lot about the Coronavirus--and its implications for etiquette--on my new podcast, "What Manners Most With Mister Manners," which you can find on Spotify, iHeartRadio and Apple Podcasts. I hope you'll check it out. But more than anything, I hope you all stay safe and well, and I look forward to speaking with you again.

What a timely and helpful chat. Thank you Mister Manners! Next week we will have Jennifer Welch of Bravo's Sweet Home helping us with making our home a sanctuary. Until then, please be safe and please stay home.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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