Your Socially Distanced Entertaining Etiquette Questions, Answered

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images.

For some of us, socializing has always been a bit of a struggle. As fun as it is to spend time with our friends, it can still be energy-zapping and leave us feeling anxious about the embarrassing things we may have said or done during the interactions. Some of the most introverted among us may have done okay during quarantine, but now that select places are opening back up, others are shutting back down, and the question of mid-pandemic gatherings are back on the table, there are more social dilemmas to navigate than ever. Brand new questions about parties, meet-ups, and entertaining are popping up for all of us, regardless of how outgoing we are or aren't, and who better to help answers those questions than Lizzie Post, etiquette expert and co-president of The Emily Post Institute?

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When it comes to handling how to socialize in our new mid-pandemic world, Post's biggest piece of advice is to approach every situation with extra patience, understanding, kindness, and compassion. "This is not easy. It's not one size fits all. It will be frustrating and difficult," she shares. "So have your apologies ready and have your good heart ready." And, reference her guidance on how to politely approach socially distanced socializing, below.

How do you go about inviting people to a socially-distanced hang without putting pressure on them to attend?
There are two things you should do with your invite that are really helpful. The first is to state the type of hangout that you're trying to create. You could say, "I would love to invite you over to do a socially distanced porch hang or socially distanced backyard hang." Or if you have to go to a public place because you don't have either of those, say park, beach, whatever it is, indicating that you want to make it socially distant. Then, state what you're hoping to offer guests and what you'd like guests to provide by way of "bring you own."

I just don't think it's a bad idea to put all of it out there in your ask and then close the ask with the second thing that's really important, which is to say, "Let me know if that sounds good to you, and if it doesn't, let me know where we could adjust. If we can't adjust, I'd love to see you via Zoom." Tactfully blurt it all out for your friends. You really can say, "We can be six feet, 10 feet, 15 feet apart. Whatever makes you comfortable. I'm happy to let you use my restroom. I've got wipes for you to wipe everything down." That usually gets people responding. You may get questions back like, "have you hung out with anybody else?" That's new and different.

In the past, the Emily Post Institute has stated that it is usually the host’s responsibility to provide food and drinks at a party, has that changed due to coronavirus? Is it okay to ask people to bring their own food and alcohol to a gathering during this time?
Oh, absolutely. BYOB or BYO whatever has always been a thing as a part of invitations, but you're right, typically the host is taking care of everything, and we can see that still happen. Some hosts choose to say, "I'm ordering separate dishes for each family that's coming." Or they say, "These are the dishes I'm preparing and the dishes have been in a fridge for 24 hours or were made in such a way that you don't have to worry." You can make those separate platters or plates for each person so that you're not sharing from the same one. Those are the kinds of things you can do.

As a host, you try to provide as best you can, and in this case, the provision might be safety. So that suggestion of bringing your own puts us in that safer category. It eliminates the sharing of food, the sharing of drink, and the sharing of cleanup, and I think that that is helpful.

Another classic party etiquette question is, do you offer to help clean up? In this case, you might make the offer, but you say, "Could I help clean up as best we can or in a way that you feel safe?" It's different. All our actions are so different now.

Do you have advice on how to be courteous when there has to be a limit on how many people are invited to a gathering, or how to tell people a gathering is already at capacity?
"We're at capacity." I think actually using that language is really good. The thing that I would try to do is if you do have a capacity for your house, try to keep to it. You don't want to say, "Oh, we have a three-person capacity at this event," but then have a 12-person capacity for another event, and it's all at the same location.

This is another one of those places where we can harness a little self-improvement and get better at rejection and just understand that, of course, our friends want to see us, but they're also trying to be safe. That does put it on us to be better about making sure we get together with our friends. Since we can't do one big hang with everybody, we have to have a more concerted effort to get together with our friends individually and paying attention to who we've maybe seen repeatedly versus who we haven't seen yet. I've had those conversations with friends where I'm like, "I feel like every time I reach out to you, I get the 'I'm tired and busy,' yet obviously we follow each other on social media. I see you with everybody else. What's going on here?” Those can be awkward and difficult conversations.

Most of the time, people are just forgetful. It's the way the timing worked out, it is not you. Try not to get caught up in the Oh, I see everybody else together, but me. It's very easy right now to let that depressive brain or anxious brain kick in. You've got to give it the COVID filter and be like, wait a minute, it's actually okay.

What should you do if you're hosting a gathering and guests aren't wearing their masks or aren't staying socially distanced?
Make sure everyone's comfortable and safe, and that includes you. If you see behavior that you don't feel comfortable and safe with, speak up as the host and say, "Hey, the plan tonight was to make sure that we all eat off separate platters so let's really make sure that we're doing that. I'm happy to get extra plates or bowls for people." Make it easy. If you've got people who are agreeing they are all comfortable being inside even though the proposal had been to just be outdoors, then you make the decision whether you, as the host, are going to allow that.

I think one of the harder things is being that squeaky wheel repeatedly. A lot of people get tired of being the person speaking up, and it's a lot to put on someone to have them be the constant reminder for good, safe behavior. That can become an issue among a group, and I've had that happen with my friends and family. I've heard of it happening with other friends and family. These are definitely different hosting and guest conversations than we've ever had to have.

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The Emily Post Institute has long maintained that you don't have to give a reason for declining an invitation. After months of quarantine, however, people might feel extra pressure to socialize and explain why they're choosing not to socialize. How do you recommend navigating that?
You can still just say no. You don't have to give a reason. It's so realistic right now that the reason can be as simple as you just don't feel up to it. It's not like you have to give a reason. It's not like you don't have to give a reason. It's up to you. The thing I will say is just don't try to lie. You don't have to, so don't go there. You don't want to get busted.

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