A fabric mask is highly effective at preventing the spread of respiratory droplets known to carry coronavirus. Now that science has become politicized and governors with authority to pass actual laws would rather hide behind the veil of personal responsibility, here we are, appealing to conservative America’s deathgrip on Civil War–era gentility. Will this work and get people to wear masks? I don’t know. We’re desperate. I cannot speak for the entire country, but throughout Texas, where cases are on the rise and the state’s too-little, too-late mask law is hardly enforceable, people hate anything that even hints at impeding personal freedom. On the other hand, they are bonkers for manners.
Numerous other countries already view wearing masks as good manners. It’s a common and polite practice to wear a mask when you’re sick in China and throughout East Asia. On Twitter, someone recently compared not wearing a mask in East Asian countries to smearing boogers on a bus seat. We don’t smear boogers in public. We don’t even pick our noses in public. So why is there so much hesitation to wear a mask?
Coughing and sneezing already come with straightforward etiquette: As a member of polite society, one should try to direct a cough or sneeze into a tissue or handkerchief; the crook of an elbow is the next-best option, according to the Emily Post Institute and also Elmo. After coughing or sneezing around other people, you say, “Excuse me.” Others who witness this scene might respond with a friendly, “Bless you.” The elbow crook sneeze was an evolution from sneezing into our hands, which was acceptable until about 20 years ago. The etiquette around sneezing and coughing can change—and now it needs to change again, to include wearing a mask in public.
A persistent bastion of gentility in Texas public schools is the annual Manners Banquet, a soiree for fifth graders who’ve successfully completed a brief course in etiquette. My elementary school held one in the early 2000s and, based on a quick Google search, plenty of schools around the state still hold them today. We practiced our “yes ma’ams” and “no sirs” and learned how many forks there are and when to use them. None of the specific lessons are necessarily memorable but the lasting effect is an ingrained compulsion to treat others kindly, with manners.
Similar rituals exist in Southern states; down here there are still debutante balls and etiquette classes. This isn’t to suggest that everyone still learns to mind their Ps and Qs in the American South in a formal setting, or that Southerners are more polite than people living in other parts of the U.S., or even that neighbors in northern states are following the rules perfectly, either. But this is a group that p roclaims to be well-mannered, and takes pride in its decency.
Widely-accepted etiquette is often rooted in public health; think: using a napkin instead of licking your fingers, flushing the toilet after you use it, and throwing your used tissues away. It’s sad that public health experts can’t get through to mask holdouts with science in the same way that a hypothetical, omniscient grandma shooting out evil eyes and firmly telling everyone to put their mask on before they leave the house would, but here we are with skyrocketing coronavirus cases. So in conclusion: wear a mask. It’s good manners.
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