“He wanted his bag, and he wanted it now,” Randall remembers. “Being last, there would have been plenty of time for him to retrieve his bag.”
Randall has a good reason to ask about the decline of civility during the pandemic. She is a San Francisco-based etiquette expert who offers workshops on courtesy and manners.
Experts say travelers have lost both as the pandemic has worn on.
“I have been contemplating this question for a while now,” says Jodi RR Smith, who runs Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass. “As much as I have come to despise the word, ‘unprecedented’ explains the decline in manners.”
Manners are based on precedent, Smith says. Travelers know how to behave because they have been in the situation before and know what’s expected of them. But during a pandemic — “unprecedented times” — people don’t know what’s expected. How do you conduct yourself at close quarters in an airplane aisle or a hotel elevator? Do you ask for permission beforehand or forgiveness afterward?
Travelers are still trying to determine the limits, and it’s creating awkward situations. Leela Magavi, the regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, an outpatient mental health organization in California, says some of her patients have complained that simple requests to wear masks have led to emotional outbursts, cursing and yelling.
“At the same time, some tourists are relaying that they do not wish to wear masks as they believe this will dampen their holiday experience,” Magavi adds. The tension between travelers who define compliance differently has led to confrontation.
There’s more. Dean McKay, a psychology professor at Fordham University, is researching mental health issues related to the pandemic. He says the stresses of traveling during a public health crisis exacerbate the decline in manners.
“During periods of acute stress, there’s lower frustration tolerance, which in turn tends to foster aggression and irritation,” he explains. “Given that traveling is often stressful under ordinary circumstances, the likelihood of manners being suspended is increased given the extent that additional steps must be taken to contain the spread of covid.”
David Brace says he’s seen more travelers treat each other unkindly in recent months, including confrontations over masks and personal space. But one incident stands out. On a trip across the South, he stopped at a drive-through for lunch.
“The young lady at the window was quite rude and honestly didn’t act like she had the time of day for me,” says Brace, who lives in Zimmerman, Minn., and writes a blog about family travel and spirituality. Brace responded to her ire with a friendly smile and wished her a blessed day. When he got to the window to pick up his order, he saw her face, and it looked like she was about to cry.
“Maybe that young woman just heard some horrible news,” he says. “Maybe she lost someone in the last few days, and her indifference toward me was coming from the emotional pain she was feeling.”
The point is, a little friendliness can overcome the worst lapses in manners. But there is more we can do to restore the manners of the traveling public. It comes down to being patient, setting a good example and being empathetic, experts say.
“Good manners mean showing patience,” says Rachel Wagner, an etiquette consultant in Bixby, Okla. “Patience to those who are not as tech-savvy as you at the check-in kiosk, to [Transportation Security Administration] officials, to the mom juggling a baby along with her carry-on items.”
Smith agrees that being polite is the best way to persuade your fellow travelers to be polite. Use your “pleases” and “thank-yous,” particularly when others don’t. Randall avoided a confrontation on her flight to San Diego, backing away from the stressed-out passenger behind her and letting him grab his bag.
“We do what we see,” Smith says. “And the more we see it, the more likely we are to follow suit.”
Understanding other travelers’ feelings will help move the process along.
“The important thing is never to forget that we’re all in this together,” says Bonnie Tsai, founder of Beyond Etiquette, a Los Angeles etiquette consultancy. “For all of us to thrive and overcome this, we need to protect others and ourselves by adhering to health and safety guidelines recommended by medical professionals and our local government.”
The solution is simple.
“We need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes,” Tsai says.
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