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Pandemic politeness - How to say ‘back off’ without getting punched

There you are, walking Fido and staying in your own lane, when you hear “Oh, what a cute dog!” … and cringe. Because the next step in this dance is that a complete stranger walks over and pets your pooch.


Bad enough in normal times, but in pandemia, it’s potentially lethal.

Step away from the dog. 
(Image by Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash)

Or an oblivious neighbor, a distant acquaintance, or a fellow shopper strikes up a conversation and stands much too close. The pizza delivery guy, waiting for a tip, licks his fingers before handing you a receipt. 

What to do?

You can’t always hide behind your front door or cross the street to evade Spreaders (let’s capitalize the word and use it to describe the umasked, the unboundaried, the magical thinker, the bullying boss, and the hostile crowder.) 

We know from rat studies that crowding results in aggression, and now that we’ve dramatically expanded our understanding of “crowding” — the definition has grown from ‘stealing more than half the armrest’ to ‘standing closer than 2m or coughing where I can hear you’ — it’s increasingly likely that aggressive responses to crowding will rise. 

Let’s be honest: People are already behaving like rats. For example:
  • This new video of a unmasked police officer beating a black man is doubly shocking not just because of the violence, but because the cop doesn’t cover his face and violates distancing rules. Bad enough that you beat a man, but you also potentially expose him to a fatal disease. Good thinking.
  • Then there's this upstanding citizen, who murdered his postal carrier because she declined to interact with his aggressive dog.
  • This lovely lady filled the air with spittle abusing a grocery clerk for not wearing gloves.
  • This clown decided to carry his facemask, instead of actually wearing it.
  • And this fine fellow took his anger out on a plastic sneeze guard.


So what’s a non-aggressive, normally polite, safety-minded person to do when encountering a Spreader? How do we avoid getting a beatdown or a droplet-projecting shout-down while asking for space?
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It’s a fine art, but here are the basic rules for staying safe while remaining polite:
  • If someone asks you to distance yourself, just go with it. Respect whatever distancing other people ask for, and do it without an argument. Life is far too short to debate the difference between six feet and two metres.
  • Be proactive by staying on your own side of the lane. Wear a mask. Walk facing traffic. Cross the street or the parking lot to avoid contact. Stay a late-afternoon-shadow’s distance from people you must talk to.
  • If you’re a shopkeeper or have any degree of authority, facilitate non aggression. Use tape markers not only to space people in lines, but to direct all foot traffic in a single direction.
  • If, despite all the above precautions, you come into conflict with a Spreader, here’s how you manage it without becoming a rat yourself:
  1. Remember that your goal is safety, not scoring. You don’t win the battle if you lose the war.
  2. Apologize for inconveniencing the Spreader. (Why not? Apologies are free. They cost you $0.00, and are actually a sign of strength and power. Only the weak cannot apologize.)
  3. Own the problem. Blaming the Spreader isn’t going to get you the reaction you want. So blame yourself. Rather than: “You’re too close,” it’s “I’m too close.” If the Spreader has a modicum of self-awareness, they’ll get the message. If they don’t, they’ll at least avoid coming closer. 
  4. Fake sick. “I’m so sorry to put you at risk, but I’ve been coughing/running a fever and I’m afraid I might be contagious” will cause other people to jump far, far away. “I’m trying to keep you safe” is much easier on the ears than “You’re probably diseased so get away from me.” 
  5. Step away. If there’s any way to efficiently remove yourself from proximity to the Spreader, leave. If the grocery store is crowded with Spreaders, come back tomorrow when the store first opens. Go walking early, before other people have even left their houses. Tip delivery people, generously, via the app. Pay your housekeeper to stay home. Use teletherapy and telemedicine to avoid waiting rooms. 
  6. Reduce anxiety. Call your friends and family regularly so they hear the sound of your voice and see your lovely face, and don’t feel the urgent need to bang on your door to see whether you’re still alive. The more you do to keep other humans calm, the less likely they are to behave badly — by, say, COVID-partying with Madonna
Make it your mission to be the peaceful presence in the lives of the people you love. That way, you can single-handedly make something good arise from the ashes of this pandemic.


More from this writer

More tips on holding onto boundaries while being a nice person. Read Just Say Yes. To Everything. Even Your Kids.

Energy down? Feeling discouraged? Feeling hopeless? Two Ideas Will Change Your World

Is it ok to put your kids ahead of your partner? Take this 10-question test at Who Comes First: Partner or Kids?


The Relationship Institute uses a martial-arts metaphor to coach relationship, communication, and life skills. Visit our digital library, schedule training events, and sign up for our newsletter to receive free therapeutic advice for improving your relationships.

LauraMaery Gold, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist working via teletherapy with couples and parents, and writes for Relating magazine. She is also executive director of The Relationship Institute and the author of oh-so-very-many books on family concerns. When all seven of their kids became adults, she and her husband took up residence in a 400-year-old castle just outside of Paris.