On a recent flight from Nairobi, Kenya, to Cairo, Wycliffe Okoth sat next to two women in masks – on their chins. He was faced with one of the most common travel dilemmas of 2020: What do you do if your seatmate does not wear a mask despite the flight rules?
“One of the ladies thought that COVID-19 does not exist and that governments are only faking it to get donation money,” says Okoth, a New York essayist. “The other believed that COVID-19 is real but is being exaggerated.”
He asked them to properly wear their masks. One of them agreed and the other refused because it insisted that COVID-19 did not exist despite more than 64 million cases and 1.5 million deaths worldwide. Finally he asked a crew member to intervene. The COVID-19 denier reluctantly consented to masking, but when the flight attendant left, she removed her mask from her face.
“People who now resist mask mandates do so on purpose, often with great hostility,” says Katie Foss, professor at Middle Tennessee State University and author of “Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in the Media and Collective Memory.”
Here’s one thing we can probably agree on: COVID-194 fatigue is real. The drama that takes place in airplanes is a symbol of a wider conflict that is taking place everywhere.
And oh what a drama it is.
While most passengers adhere to the mask rules, some have found creative ways to get around them. Airlines selectively ban passengers who refuse to meet the requirements or threaten them with worse. A flight attendant was caught on video claiming that flight attendants are government officials (they are not) and that passengers who fail to comply will never be able to fly with an airline again (there is no such blacklist).
What do the experts say about sitting mates who do not wear a mask?
Etiquette experts say the best way to deal with a sit-down mate who does not mask is to not deal with one at all.
“Fighting someone who has to sit next to you for hours may not be the right idea,” says Adeodata Czink, who runs an etiquette consulting firm called Business of Manners.
Your advice? Ask for another place. Let the flight crew take care of the ridicule.
Saying something is a personal choice, says Diane Gottsman, who directs the Protocol School of Texas.
“You can safely reach out to your seatmate and politely ask that he adjust his mask to fit properly,” she says. “But you are clearly taking a risk – especially in tight spaces where you are not sure how the other person will react.”
How to negotiate with someone who does not mask himself
Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert who wrote the podcast “Were You Bred By Wolves?” With moderated, says negotiating can be “difficult”.
“Start with a friendly smile and use a neutral, non-judgmental tone for the highest chance of success,” he says. “Your mileage may vary, however.”
Your attitude matters, says Bonnie Tsai, director of Beyond Etiquette, an etiquette consultancy.
“It’s important that it feels like a team effort, and we all do this together, rather than singling them out and blaming or shaming them or not wearing a mask,” she says. “When you make this request, do so with a smile in your eyes and a friendly tone so that they don’t feel like you are their enemy.”
If your fellow passenger appears upset and hostile, ask a crew member to intervene. This is the advice of Jodi RR Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.
“This isn’t just the hassle of a toddler stepping on the back of your seat or a seatmate listening to a movie without earphones,” she says. “This virus can have deadly consequences for you and your families. You need to get in touch.”
Oh, and if you think this is difficult, just wait until 2021 when we have to start separating those who are vaccinated from those who are not. This makes this problem look like a vacation.
Frequently asked questions about COVID-19 vaccines:Will there be any side effects? When can you get it We answer your questions
Tips for dealing with a seatmate who is not wearing a mask
Set an example. This is the approach that clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff recommends. She says you should make an effort to follow the rules yourself. Practice social distancing and make sure everyone in your group has a mask. “Use local cues when you can,” she adds. “Point at the stickers on the floor, six feet apart, or at social distancing signs to strengthen your message and the norm of the environment.”
Let them make the decision. For a behavioral analyst like Rachel Sheerin, it is best to focus on the rules rather than how the rules affect you. For some non-mask wearers, she phrased this as a question: “The rules say we have to wear masks – will you wear one?” She says. “Then give them a moment to answer.” By taking yourself out of the equation, setting the rules, and phrasing them as a question, you can usually get your seatmate to adhere to it, she says.
Pay attention to your body language. Words alone will not win an argument with an anti-masker. “People are more aware of your non-verbal cues,” says Kristine Scott, a conflict coach for Seattle Conflict Resolution. “Hand gestures, sound, eyes, posture are more important.” Do not focus your shoulders on your seatmate and try to stay at eye level. But – and this is important – position yourself so that you can get out quickly. Keep your hands visible and gesticulate slowly if you can naturally.