How to address the money FAQ that come up around social distancing, according to an etiquette expert


Over the past week, Americans have taken drastic steps to limit their social interaction in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Large events have been canceled, and many bars and restaurants closed, as the White House has asked Americans to practice "social distancing" and limit social gatherings to 10 people or fewer.

Separation from loved ones and a sense of isolation are part of the emotional toll many people are facing as a result. But there are financial implications of social distancing as well, and some difficult money questions can arise.

In general, canceling events or plans without hurting anyone's feelings or losing money you've put out in advance can be quite tricky. But in a climate of economic uncertainty, expectations around financial etiquette can be even more complex. 

"Right now, it's going to be very important for us to begin to verbalize our desires as much as possible," says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert. "Too often people feel that proper etiquette means that you would evade the truth, but that is the exact opposite. Proper etiquette would dictate that you tell the truth and you use that core value of honesty." 

Here are a few tips for dealing with both the financial questions and uncomfortable situations that may arise due to social distancing guidelines.

How to cancel or postpone events

Especially if you've spent a lot of time and money on an event, it can feel disheartening to cancel it. But Swann says it's OK, and even recommended, to cancel or postpone. 

"We have to recognize that right now at this particular point in time in our country, we are experiencing a crisis," says Swann. "So, number one, acknowledge that it's a crisis, and own that, and be confident and assured that it's OK for you to cancel something."  

When you are canceling an event such as a wedding or a conference, contact any vendors you hired and ask them about their contingency plans. If they aren't able to refund your deposit, ask them what your options are for hosting a smaller gathering or postponing your event so that you don't lose the money you've put into your event. 

Reach out to all of your guests, too, and inform them that the event has been canceled. Express that you are trying to put their health and safety first. 

Even with new, stricter guidelines, there are ways to make smaller parties or weddings special, says Marcy Blum, a New York City-based event planner. 

"For many couples who still want to get married, it's possible to have a nice, intimate ceremony in their home or backyard with their closest friends and family members. In fact, the smaller the party, the more of an opportunity there is to personalize your event by having each individual give a toast," says Blum. "Still have the small ceremony, Skype in your older family members, and plan to celebrate with a larger party at a later date." 

If you can postpone your event rather than cancel it completely, that would be a saving grace for many event planners and caterers, she adds. "There will be hundreds of caterers out of work. Now is the time to come together and try to support our small businesses as best we can. We are all in this together." 

How to decline invitations

If you're invited to an event but you don't feel comfortable leaving your home or hanging out even in an intimate group, Swann says to decline as you typically would. 

"You don't have to go into too much detail to try to win the person over to get them to understand your perspective, but just say 'I'm not going to attend,'" says Swann. If it's a birthday or another kind of celebration, "it would be in good form to still send a gift," she adds.  

So, number one, acknowledge that it's a crisis, and own that, and be confident and assured that it's OK for you to cancel something.
Elaine Swann
etiquette expert

Sending money may be a good gift option if you can. It eliminates the need to go to a store or to place an online order that may take a long time to arrive. And though sending money via a mobile payment can be seen impersonal, a little extra effort turns it into a thoughtful gesture.

"Do a little bit of research on that particular person, comb their social media pages, and really get an idea of things that they like or that interest them," Swann told Grow in 2019. Then, come up with a reasonable amount to cover the cost of one of those items.

If you're sending them a mobile payment, include a note that specifies your intention for how to use the money. For example, you might say, "Put this towards the pair of sneakers you've been wanting." That level of detail shows that thought and care.

How to dis-invite a guest

If you previously invited someone over who you suspect may be sick, it's OK to dis-invite them, says Swann. You can do so in a way that's polite and considerate.

"The best way to go about this is to not necessarily shine the spotlight on that person and say, 'You're sick so therefore you're not welcome,'" she says. Instead, she suggests you "flip it around and say, 'It's my desire to protect you.'"

You can send a mass email or text to the friends you've invited over and urge them to stay home if they're not feeling well, reminding them that their health is important to you, or you can ask a specific person to stay home. 

"Acknowledge the fact that this could come off as a bit offensive," says Swann. "Say, 'I do apologize that you feel offended, but I think it's important right now for me to do my best to protect everyone, and that includes you.'" 

How to socialize during a time of social distancing 

Swann says this is actually a great time to deepen relationships using the technology we have at our fingertips

"This might be an instance where we can begin to do some internal reflection, and really begin to cultivate some of those relationships around us that are very near and dear to us," she says. Bonus: This will usually be cheaper than meeting at a bar.

Here are Swann's tips for forming connections or deepening existing bonds without physical interaction: 

  • Create a large group chat with your friends so that you can keep in contact and help pass the time. Even if not everyone knows each other that well, it could be a good opportunity to forge new friendships.
  • Set up a regular time to webcam with family members. 
  • Set up phone calls or FaceTime dates as an alternative to in-person dates. 
  • Set up a time to play a video game together online, or watch the same movie and report back to each other. 

"I'm really trying to get people to utilize video chat and video conferencing as much as possible so that we still have that human contact," says Swann. "We can hear the inflection in a person's voice, see the expressions on their faces — that's a form of communication." 

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