We’ve heard the guidelines for months: wash your hands frequently, wear a face covering, and stay 6 feet from others. But what if people don’t want to stay 6 feet from you?

Many of us have already experienced this awkward exchange: your friend comes in for a hug, a supervisor for a handshake, or a teammate for a high-five and you clumsily pull away, hold your breath, or release an uneasy chuckle. The coronavirus is spread via airborne transmission and infected people may be asymptomatic, which allows spread of the virus from these exact social interactions.

How do we navigate this anxiety-provoking encounter, while still showing our friends and loved ones the same openness and warmth that we did in our pre-COVID lives? This is a hard line to walk. Luckily, we are all in this boat and many are struggling with the same dilemma.

When someone gets too close for comfort, here are a few tips to ask other people to maintain social distance without being awkward:

Take personal responsibility

Assume you are an asymptomatic carrier. Viewing yourself as a source of COVID infection will remind you to be diligent in preventing spread to someone else. Blame the crowd at church, when you forgot your face covering while at the grocery store last week, or the fact that you live in a COVID hotspot. “I want to hug you, but I have to keep you safe” are powerful words to a loved one.

Practice your response

Be ready to counter that handshake with an elbow bump. Have your personal responsibility lines ready to go. “Let’s both be safe.” As you practice, these exchanges will become more fluid.


Make a joke about how awkward this feels. We’re all experiencing worry and uncertainty. Tried and true gestures that have been a part of our lives are no longer safe, and we are rethinking how to show people affection.

Blame authority

Throw your local health department, governor, or the CDC under the bus. Shift responsibility by saying, “Our health department says to stay 6 feet apart,” or “The CDC says not shake hands anymore to prevent the spread of COVID.” You’re begrudgingly following the guidance of our health professionals and doing your best to keep others safe. This also reminds others of the guidelines. We’ve only lived in this new reality a few months; some of us may forget when we are excited to see an old friend.

Above all, be kind

We are all feeling anxious and some may be better informed than others. Some may be pretending this is not happening or are having trouble accepting our current reality. A bit of grace and gentleness can go a long way right now.

This pandemic is a slow, unfolding disaster, and we are trying our best to be a good neighbor and friend. For some, that may be keeping with the old status quo. So, be sure to keep hand sanitizer in your pocket, for when that relative insists on shaking your hand at the next socially distant family cookout.