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Here's What You Should Do If Other Grocery Shoppers Aren't Wearing Masks

Etiquette experts share tips on how to make an awkward conversation less uncomfortable.
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The coronavirus has upended daily life in many ways, from the way we socialize to how work is done. But as much as the virus has led us to change our habits and hobbies to reduce the risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19, not everyone has made the same lifestyle changes—and that can create some uncomfortable situations. This is particularly true of wearing masks, which has turned into an oddly controversial issue in 2020 America.

A wealth of research has demonstrated that cloth masks are very effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, blocking the transfer of respiratory droplets between people. Mask use corresponds to steep drops in virus case growth rates in areas where they are mandated. The mounting evidence of masks' effectiveness, and growing cases of coronavirus, has led to a growing number of governors, mayors and business owners to require they be worn.

But not everyone is on board with this. A number of people refuse to wear masks, with some creating confrontations—some might say "tantrums"—when asked, such as this outburst in a Dallas Trader Joe's and this one in a Fiesta Mart and more.

While these are the most dramatic examples of non-wearers, there's a good chance that throughout your day, you will run into someone who's not wearing a mask and is in close enough quarters to you (such as in the line at the grocery store) where you may feel inclined to ask them to mask up. If you are a grocery store clerk, it may now be part of your job to tell customers they must do so.

So, what is the best way to ask that sort of thing of someone in order to avoid sparking an overreaction? We spoke with a few etiquette experts to find out. (And to keep yourself informed on the latest coronavirus and grocery shopping news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter.)

1

Consider your tone

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It's well known that the words you say are often not as impactful as the tone you use in conveying a message, and that's especially true when trying to ask someone to do something they may not want to do.

"Do not show anger in your voice or body language when someone is not wearing a mask; that could result in an unpleasant confrontation," says Rachel R. Wagner, a licensed corporate etiquette and international protocol consultant.

Jennifer Lynn, the etiquette expert behind Elegant Living Everyday, agrees that when people feel that they are being questioned about something, they will usually respond in a defensive way.

"For a few people, 'wearing a mask' can become a trigger for them, so it's important to always diffuse the situation by being nice, not demanding it, and simply suggesting it without sounding condescending or superior," says Lynn.

That's a hard balance to strike, but a good strategy is to try and ask with a tone of empathy, even humor, rather than annoyance. Approach the barefaced person with the tone of a friend rather than an adversary. (Related: The Single Worst Grocery Shopping Mistake You Shouldn't Make During Reopening.)

2

Check your body language

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One thing that's just as important as tone is your body language. Avoid pointing, clenched fists, or wearing a scowling expression when communicating with a person who's not wearing a mask. Try to keep your behavior as relaxed as possible.

That said, sometimes the right gesture can prove more effective than hundreds of words.  "No one likes to feel embarrassed, and when someone points out that they are not wearing one and others hear, that is one way to draw unwanted attention," says Lynn. "A simple hand gesture can help to remind them to put it on and avoid any awkward moments." (Related: 5 Red Flags Your Grocery Store Isn't Safe to. Shop In.)

3

Consider your words

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Of course, words also matter in a situation like this. Wagner recommends choosing words that stress how mask-wearing is for the general good. She suggests saying something like, "Since we all have different comfort levels, I would like to ask that we mutually care for one another by wearing a mask."

Lynne Goldberg, a wedding and event specialist, says that one of her new roles for gatherings she's planning is "mask concierge" as clients ask that she ensure people wear masks at their weddings and events. How does she deal with this?

"I find the best way to ask is to ask," says Goldberg. "No one wants to be shamed or told what to do or backed in a corner, so saying what you want in a direct but kind way is proving to be working for me." (Related: Grocery Store Workers are Increasingly Angry at Shoppers for This One Reason.)

4

Know when to walk away

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While in most cases, your request is likely to be respected and the person will respond quickly and respectfully, in these tense times, things may not always go so smoothly.

"The first response for many people when they feel that they are being embarrassed is to lash out in a defensive attitude," says Lynn. "The chances of them wearing a mask after that are slim."

Sometimes, the person will just not be interested in respecting the social contract, and to push would lead to a serious confrontation and might even put your own health or physical well-being in a risky position.

If it's clear that your request is causing the maskless person frustration or distress, your best move may be just to step back, keep your distance from them, and accept that maybe you just are not the right messenger for this request at the moment.

"This is a tender topic, even if asked in the most polite ways, some people will still take offense," says Lynn. "The most important detail to remember is to be kind and have compassion and empathy for everyone going through this pandemic. Never escalate any situation verbally, because it will never help. It's easier to accept that some people will not want to wear them and just avoid them—politely."

For more, be aware of this other grocery shopping move that infuriates other customers.

Alex Palmer
Alex is a writer and expert excavator of fascinating facts. Read more