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Miss Manners: Is a mask the new handkerchief?

By Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin Andrews McMeel Syndication

DEAR MISS MANNERS: In these days of COVID-19, and forever hence, may I offer individuals with overt symptoms of sickness (coughing, sneezing, etc.) a spare face mask?

I’ve always been charmed by the ethos of some cultures in Asia, where individuals don them automatically. Over the years, I’ve stewed in silence, particularly trapped on airplanes, while an individual clearly continues to exhibit symptoms of sickness. I usually carry a mask or two for myself, but they are so much more effective in preventing the transmission of germs from the source, rather than shielding one from them.

One can never tell who might be immunocompromised from medical conditions or treatments. So, can I politely say, “I happen to have a spare mask. May I offer it to you?”

GENTLE READER: Do you mean, is the surgical mask this century’s handkerchief?

It could well be, but only as long as we pay careful attention to the ever-changing protocols. (It is your “forever hence” that gives Miss Manners pause.)

Even a short time ago, your generosity might have been perceived as an accusation: that the person in question was obviously sick and not being mindful of others. As this is being written, however, most would see it as a much-coveted offering, on a level with toilet paper and facial tissue in value.

As your intention could still fall into the former category, Miss Manners suggests that you choose your phrasing carefully. Yours is not bad, but she suggests that the intonation make it clear that you would offer it to anybody – and are not targeting this particular person based on age or perceived condition. Even if this is not, in fact, the case.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was having a telephone conversation with my lady friend (she is 42, I am 52, and we are on a trajectory towards a committed relationship). Shortly into the conversation, she mentioned that she was going through some papers; shortly after that, one of them caught her attention.

Then I heard her get up and start another activity, and I told her that I would like her full attention for a moment. She said nothing, but went on to do two more activities that she mentioned, at which point I repeated my request and she got testy.

I was taught that presence and being “in the moment” were important – on the phone as well as in person – and that multitasking was rude. I understand that we don’t all hold to the same standards, but I certainly think it is wrong to continue to multitask when the person you are speaking with has said that they would prefer your full attention.

This is a long way of asking your views of multitasking on the phone while speaking to an intimate friend during courtship.

GENTLE READER: “It seems that I have caught you at a bad time. Please let me know when you are done filing your taxes and I will give you a call back then.”

Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com.

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