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Every leading U.S. airline will require passengers to wear facial coverings during flights. Airlines say they won’t let customers without masks board a plane. (May 6)
On a recent flight from Nairobi, Kenya, to Cairo, Wycliffe Okoth sat next to two women wearing masks – on their chins. He faced one of the most common traveler dilemmas of 2020: What do you do when your seatmate won’t wear a mask, despite airline rules?
“One of the ladies was of the opinion that COVID-19 does not exist and that governments are only faking it to get donor funds,” says Okoth, an essayist from New York. “The other one believed that COVID-19 is real but is being exaggerated.”
He asked them to wear their masks correctly. One of them complied, but the other refused because she insisted COVID-19 didn’t 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 grudgingly agreed to mask up, but when the flight attendant left, she slipped her mask off her face again.
“People who defy mask mandates now are doing it intentionally, often with great hostility,” says Katie Foss, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and author of the book “Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media & Collective Memory.”
Here’s one thing we can probably agree on: COVID-194 fatigue is real. The drama playing itself out on planes is emblematic of a broader conflict happening everywhere.
And oh, what a drama it is.
Although most passengers are complying with the mask rules, some have found creative ways around them. Airlines are selectively banning passengers who refuse to comply with the requirements or threatening them with worse. One flight attendant was captured on video claiming that flight attendants were government officials (they aren’t) and that passengers who didn’t comply would never be able to fly on any airline again (there is no such blacklist).
What do the experts say about seatmates who won’t wear a mask?
Etiquette experts say the best way to deal with a seatmate who won’t mask up is not to deal with one at all.
“Fighting with someone that you have to sit next to for hours may not be the right idea,” says Adeodata Czink, who runs an etiquette consultancy called Business of Manners.
Her advice? Ask for another seat. Let the flight crew deal with the scofflaw.
Saying something is a personal choice, says Diane Gottsman, who runs the Protocol School of Texas.
“You can certainly turn to your seatmate and politely request they adjust their mask to fit properly,” she says. “But you’re clearly taking a risk – especially in tight quarters where you’re not certain how the other person will react.”
How to negotiate with someone who won’t mask up
Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert who co-hosts the podcast “Were you raised by wolves?,” says the negotiation can be “tricky.”
“Start with a kind smile and use a value-neutral, nonjudgmental tone for the highest chance of success,” he says. “However, your mileage may vary.”
Your attitude is important, says Bonnie Tsai, director of Beyond Etiquette, an etiquette consulting firm.
“It’s important to make it feel like it’s a team effort, and we’re all doing this together rather than singling them out and accusing or shaming them or not wearing a mask,” she says. “When you make this request, do so with a smile in your eyes and friendly tone, so they won’t feel that you’re their enemy.”
If your fellow passenger appears agitated and hostile, ask a crew member to intervene. That’s the advice of Jodi RR Smith, owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.
“This is not the mere annoyance of a toddler kicking the back of your seat or a seatmate listening to a movie without earbuds,” she says. “This virus has potentially deadly consequences for you and your families. You need to speak up.”
Oh, and if you think this is difficult, just wait until 2021, when we have to start separating people who are vaccinated from those who aren’t. That’ll make this problem look like a vacation.
COVID-19 vaccine FAQ: Will there be side effects? When can you get it? We answer your questions
Tips for dealing with a seatmate who won’t wear a mask
Set an example. That’s the approach Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist, recommends. She says you should take pains to follow the rules yourself. Practice social distancing and ensure everyone in your party has a mask. “Use cues from the environment if you can,” she adds. “Pointing to the stickers placed six feet apart on the ground or signs about social distancing to bolster your message and norm of the environment.”
Let them make the decision. For a behavioral analyst like Rachel Sheerin, it’s best to focus on the rules instead of how the rules affect you. With some non-mask-wearers, she phrases it as a question: “The rules say we have to wear masks – are you going to wear one?” she says. “Then, give them a moment to respond.” By taking yourself out of the equation, making it about the rules and phrasing it as a question, you can usually get your seatmate to comply, she says.
Mind your body language. Words alone won’t win an argument with an anti-masker. “People perceive your nonverbal cues more,” says Kristine Scott, a conflict coach from Seattle Conflict Resolution. “Hand gestures, tone, eyes, body position are more important.” Don’t square your shoulders to your seatmate and try to stay at eye level. But – and this is important – position yourself so you can exit quickly. Keep your hands visible, gesticulate slowly if you’re able to do so naturally.
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