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How To Politely Tell People To Keep Their Distance From You In Public

Abby Moore
May 4, 2020
Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer
By Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Paper Collage of People Walking in a City Social Distancing
Image by Cactus Creative Studio / Stocksy
May 4, 2020

After months of being shut down, various parts of the country are slowly reopening businesses. Even in places that remain closed, more and more people are venturing out of their homes to soak in the warming weather. These changes may make social distancing more difficult, despite how necessary it still is to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus. That means many of us are going to increasingly face situations where we need to actively protect our boundaries with others as we navigate the outside world.

Yes, reflexively flinching when people approach you or directly telling someone to back off can be pretty awkward. So here's what experts are recommending for communicating boundaries without offending others.

How to deal with people getting too close to you.

While the pandemic has adjusted the way we all interact, clinical psychologist Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP, explains, people have always had different levels of comfort with physical closeness. "In many ways, our current situation may make it a little easier to speak up if you are not comfortable since there are clear guidelines on physical space1," she says. 

Meaning, if you don't feel comfortable expressing your feelings, it's perfectly acceptable to blame your distance on social distancing guidelines—especially when dealing with strangers. 

Dealing with strangers: 

Simply walking away from strangers may be the safest and smartest thing to do. "I don't antagonize strangers," psychoanalyst and emotion specialist Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, says. "You don't know what triggers or past traumas they have, or if they have a weapon." 

With strangers, unfortunately, mutual respect may not always exist. Accepting that and walking away can save you from a lot of unnecessary stress and confrontation. "You owe no explanation to strangers," psychotherapist Padma Ali, LMFT, says.

If someone does confront you about your standoffish behavior, holistic psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, says to definitely just blame your distance on the 6-foot rule from the CDC. If they disagree with the CDC, that's not really your problem or a worthwhile battle for you to fight.

Dealing with family or friends: 

With family members and friends, Ali recommends offering an explanation to preserve the relationship.

"It's not necessarily what you say but how you say it," Hendel says. Your tone of voice, the look in your eyes, and your intention in delivering the message can all make a difference in how the other person receives it. 

Friends and family members whose love language is physical touch are probably yearning for the day they can hug you again. If they go in for the hug upon reuniting, remember that their intentions aren't malicious, so don't put them on the defensive.

"Responding to these situations from a place of empathy and understanding can go a long way, as opposed to becoming angry," Beurkens says. Simply express your concerns and clearly communicate what you are and are not comfortable with. You can reinforce that you love them and are happy to see them, but you'd still like to play it safe for now.

Examples of what to say. 

To a friend or family member: 

  • I'm happy to see you and talk to you. For everyone's safety, though, I'd like us to keep social distancing and stay at least 6 feet apart.
  • I missed you, but I'm not ready to drop social distancing guidelines yet.
  • I'm feeling stressed that you're so close to me. I'm going to back up.

To a stranger in a store:

  • Excuse me, would you mind staying back for a moment? I'll be done here shortly.
  • Can you please back up so we can maintain more social distance?

Or walk away, without an explanation.

To anyone:

  • To keep both of us safe, I'm making sure there is at least 6 feet of space between us.
  • I'd feel more comfortable if there was a bit more space between us.

The bottom line.

In these uncertain times, having someone invade your space may invoke feelings of frustration or anxiety. "We can't control other people's actions, but we can monitor our own responses," Hallett says. "Speaking up about keeping physical distance is a way to affirm your own well-being and safety."

Abby Moore author page.
Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer

Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.