“How Can I Cancel Virtual Plans Last Minute?” And 8 Other Quarantine Etiquette Questions, Answered

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What’s vexing you these days? Is it a slow shopper impressing their fingerprints on every lemon at the grocery store? Or the mask that conceals your deeply felt facial reactions? Below, I grapple with some of your most pressing questions, in this next installment of our quarantine etiquette column.

How do I politely get someone to pick produce faster? This man at Trader Joe’s touched every lemon. —Speedy Sally

Imposing your own etiquette framework on any stranger these days is a gamble—and not necessarily one I’d encourage. My first suggestion is to find a way to maintain a well of patience during this time. A virtue, sure, but I think patience is actually a skill which can (eventually) bear fruit in all compartments of your life, and what better time to refine it than now? (Wait, is this an etiquette column or your horoscope?)

If you live in a place where interacting with strangers is commonplace, the most polite solution seems to be reframing this as an educational opportunity. Rather than asking someone to pick up the pace, can you teach someone your tricks for selecting ripe produce from six feet away? Here you can assume the role of kind stranger, even if your motive may be ulterior. Either the slow-shopper will be appreciative of your generosity of spirit, or they will look for the quickest way to exit this social interaction.

When it comes to shaking peoples’ hands and greetings in work environments, what will we be expected to do? —Handsy Harriet

The handshake has gone into retirement for the foreseeable future, and I can’t envision an elbow bump performed in a professional setting. (I know this is an unpopular opinion among my age group, but under typical etiquette circumstances, I am Team Handshake.) It is my opinion that a succinct, friendly wave will have to sub in for the meantime. Instinctively, most people will follow this with a self-conscious shrug that says, “I’m sorry I have to wave at you from six feet away.”

Can I eat my breakfast on Zoom meetings? —Hungry Hans

Sadly, no.

(And I do think you’ll enjoy it more if you eat it before!)

(Have you ever had Cracker Eggs?)

As a smiler, I’m feeling anxious about how to convey politeness through a mask. Especially when interacting with cashiers, I want to know the best way to let them know I am appreciative, without removing my mask. —Expressive Enid

My inclination is that we now have to use language and tone of voice to compensate for what is concealed when wearing a mask. This means being more vocal than usual, for some people, and practicing over-communicating until the correction feels like second nature. In the recent instances when I found wearing a mask to be a social roadblock, I found myself articulating things like, “I just smiled—sorry, I forgot you couldn’t see it,” when I realized I might be coming off as cold or unreceptive.

Adjusting your overall posture and body language are certainly valid ways to telegraph friendliness, but I find them more difficult to control than speech.

I’m finding I’m more extroverted than I ever realized and craving whatever social time I can get, but I worry about putting something extra on friends who aren’t feeling the same way and are finding it difficult to socialize right now. What do I do? —Gregarious Gloria

What a conscientious question! In this scenario, I recommend taking cues from a tennis pro, and feeding the ball into your friends’ courts. You can send them an open-ended invitation to talk (“I’d love to catch up whenever feels right for you!”). I feel pretty confident they’ll take you up on that offer, now or in three weeks. If you have enough of these tennis balls lobbed in the air at once, your social calendar will fill up in no time.

How do you maintain relationships with the people you normally saw via spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous interactions. Like how I keep up a bond with distant friends I’d occasionally run into on campus or at the mall?
—Spontaneous Siobhan

Send them a funny meme, out of the blue, every two months? Or maybe this tweet:

Marco Polo, Zoom, Discord, Houseparty…. At what point can you tell a friend, “I do not care if that’s your preferred method of communication in this crisis, I will not download another app onto my phone.” Help!?
—Overindexed Ophelia

I can commiserate. Next time someone asks you to join a new app, send them a menu of all the options you’ve already downloaded and ask them to pick one. That way, you don’t have a preferred method of communication—which would render this question hypocritical—and they can choose from a spread of options. To make this exchange more fun, you can tell your friend to close their eyes and pick one of your many already-downloaded apps at random.

How do I last-minute cancel virtual plans when everyone knows I have nowhere to be and nothing to do? —Flaky Farah

I think we, as a society, should avoid last-minute cancellations to the best of our abilities. As a fledgling etiquette columnist, I feel that I cannot in good faith suggest ways to politely cancel fast-approaching plans. Emily Post is always watching.

The last-minute cancellation should be reserved for only the most necessary situations: You were asked to work late on an urgent project, something at home went unexpectedly haywire and you’re in tears, you spontaneously fell in love with Julie Delpy on a train to Vienna, etc., etc. My suggestion here is to honestly consider your plans before you set them in stone, judging them against the criteria of how you anticipate you’ll feel when you hear the ping of the calendar notification 30 minutes before the start time. If you’re setting yourself up to cancel last minute—whether it’s because you’re not giving yourself enough of a time buffer or you just don’t want to attend another Zoom party—don’t commit to the plan in the first place.

Here’s an experiment: Instead of plotting out your virtual social calendar for a week, leave it empty with the intention of spontaneously calling a few of your friends when the mood strikes, and hoping they pick up. It’s like intuitive eating but for keeping in touch. Let me know how it goes!

I’ve been making dinner a lot lately for my cohabitants—at what point in the meal can I ask my diners what they think of their food? —Curious Candace

Every home cook has their own methodology when it comes to gleaning feedback on their food: Some treat the meal itself as a conversation starter at dinnertime, while others will either wait until a) the diners have either finished half of what’s on their plate or b) the people they’ve fed have steered the conversation in the direction of the dinner itself of their own volition. Not to coast on my responsibilities here, but my well-mannered reserves are running on empty, and I’m curious what you think? What’s the routine wherever you’re quarantined? What is the optimal point in the meal when Curious Candace can ask her diners what they think of her food?

Feature Photo via Everett Collection.

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