How to have awkward safety conversations during a COVID-19 holiday season

·6 min read

The halls have been decked, the presents are wrapped (or at least bought, right?), and the holiday season is firmly underway — but it will no doubt be a different celebration this year with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health-care officials have been steadily reminding people to follow all public health measures — limit in-person gatherings to a small, regular group of people, maintain physical distancing, wear masks and wash your hands, to name some key points.

While cases in Newfoundland and Labrador have remained low since March, especially compared with other Canadian jurisdictions, those numbers can only stay low if people adhere to health-care guidance.

But what are you supposed to do if someone invites you to a not-so-physically distanced gathering? Or perhaps isn't wearing a mask, and has gotten too close for your comfort?

Michelle Snow is an etiquette coach in St. John's with advice to have what might be some awkward conversations over a pandemic holiday.


Safety comes first

Snow said the pandemic will be on everyone's mind, and keeping that as the focus of conversations can help you approach the topic in an easier way.

"Whether it's celebrating Christmas or other holidays, we like to gather together and we receive a lot of invitations, and those are really integral to how we celebrate this season. But I think we can all acknowledge that this year is a little bit different," Snow says.

"Safety has to be paramount and front and centre … but if you keep safety at the forefront of your discussions as well, then the choices that we make in terms of how we respond to those situations can be much easier."

Kindness is key

While everyone obviously knows about the pandemic, it might be a struggle, while facing unprecedented strain, to voice your safety concerns without coming off as rude.

"These are absolutely stressful times, and stress can also lead to us sometimes maybe not being as polite as we would normally like to be," she told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

Frame the conversation on your preferences and your actions, rather than sounding as though you're criticizing what others are doing.

Zach Goudie/CBC
Zach Goudie/CBC

"It's really difficult to change other people's behaviour, and that shouldn't be the goal here. We should be thinking about what's best for ourselves and best for them as well," Snow said.

"If you're offered an invitation that you're not comfortable with, respectfully decline that invitation, thank the individual and acknowledge that, if this is an annual holiday tradition, how important that is to you and your family's celebration of the season, but also acknowledge that this year things are gonna look a little different."

Financial strain

With business closures, limited capacity, and job losses related to the pandemic, there are some who are having financial difficulty this year like never before.

Snow said while it's almost always "better to give than to receive," some may feel an obligation to match a gift they gave last year when money wasn't so tight.

A little understanding, she said, can go a long way.

"I think like most things in 2020 we recognize this is a really unusual year. Not only have many people in our community had some financial hardship, but even the ability to get out to stores or to access the types of supplies or gifts or materials that you normally would is really limited this year," she said.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

"It's really the thought and the sentiment that's really what's most important at this particular time, so if you're not able to give the traditional gift that you would have, you shouldn't feel that you have any obligation to do that, and if you're receiving a gift that looks a little bit different, then recognize that that's probably where that person was at this particular time and what they were able to give."

Personal gifts are great, she said, as is non-material sentiment.

"Find a way to spend a little bit of extra time, have an extra long conversation … to fill up that space a little bit, and recognize that maybe next year will be different again."

2 metres away, please

While the season's hustle and bustle can be overwhelming at the best of times, the added restraints of public health advice can make going out in public additionally stressful.

Snow said if you find someone in a public venue keeps inching into your two-metre safety space, it might be easier for you to be the one to move away.

"If the option you have in front of you is that you're able to take a different course of action to keep yourself and others safe, then that's always the preferable choice," Snow said.

But if the problem persists and you need to ask someone to move, Snow said a "friendly and helpful" tone will make a big difference.

"People's perception of what that two-metre or six-feet space is sometimes can be very varied, so if you find that someone keeps creeping up behind you in the physically distanced line then maybe just let them go ahead of you," Snow said.

"You can keep the specific distance that you require away from them again without making them feel uncomfortable or without causing a confrontation."

What if no mask?

With face masks being mandatory in all indoor public spaces in the province, Snow said it's not often you'll encounter someone who isn't wearing some kind of face covering.

But if you do, try not to jump to conclusions.

"We shouldn't presume to understand why someone is acting or behaving in a particular way. We've all gotten out of the car to run into the corner store and forgotten our mask," she said.

For those who have extra masks on hand, Snow offers a different tactic.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press
Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press

"One of my friends routinely carries additional extra masks in her purse, packaged in individual baggies, and when she found herself in a situation in fairly close proximity to someone who wasn't wearing a mask, rather than asking them why or scolding or glaring at them, she simply reached into her bag and offered the individual a mask," Snow said.

"They accepted it, were grateful for it, and that was the end of the discussion. So we shouldn't presume to understand what those reasons are."

Essentially, Snow said, it's best to focus on the things you can control, rather that focus on others.

"If you're able to take an action yourself that keeps you safe without causing a confrontation or making somebody else uncomfortable, then that's always the best choice of action."

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