How should you deal with travelers who don't think the rules apply to them?

Christopher Elliott, Special to USA TODAY
·6 min read

It's not your imagination. More of your fellow travelers don't think the rules apply to them. They remove their masks, invade your personal space and disregard advisories about handwashing and sanitation.

It's going to get us all sick – or worse.

"We've always had people who feel that the rules don't apply to them," says Adeodata Czink, an etiquette consultant who runs a company called Business of Manners. "So many months after the pandemic started, even people who normally behave have had enough of more and more restrictions. And they've just plain quit following any rules."

Only about two-thirds of Americans wear a mask in public, a survey revealed last year. And roughly half of Americans practice social distancing by avoiding large gatherings, according to another recent study. No wonder the pandemic is out of control.

But it's particularly worrisome when it comes to travel. People are already scrunched together in hotel lobbies or on planes. So when fellow travelers decide they're exempt from the rules, despite new federal mask mandates, everyone pays the price.

Why do travelers feel the rules don't apply to them? And how can you talk them into following the rules? It depends on the situation – whether you're dealing with a no-masker, someone who invades your personal space, or someone who won't use hand sanitizer. But it all comes down to politeness.

Why do some travelers feel the rules don't apply to them?

Michael Altman, program director and lecturer of hospitality and tourism management at Meredith College, says travelers are fed up.

"In talking to travelers, what I am hearing is that they are tired," he says. "They're tired of being cooped up and grounded. But even more, they're tired of the contradictory or politicized messages of how we can safely travel, especially as the vaccine starts to make its way around the world."

So why aren't travelers following the rules? One possibility is that they actually think other people have to practice social distancing or wear a mask, but not them, say experts.

"They literally think the rules don't apply to them," says Laurie Weingart, professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. Still others feel the rules aren't valid or that the personal costs of obeying the rules are too high.

"To get people to change their behavior and follow the rules, each of these potential mindsets need to be acknowledged and addressed," she says.

How to get someone to wear a mask

Passengers who refuse to mask up are a major problem, as we've seen from all the viral videos of people getting kicked off planes and stories of airlines temporarily banning passengers who refuse to comply.

The good news is that the Transportation Safety Administration has given frontline airline workers, airport personnel and TSA employees muscle to enforce the rules. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also laid out narrow criteria for which masks are acceptable, when they can be removed and who is eligible for an exemption.

Mask up or pay up: Violations on planes, trains, buses could mean fines up to $1,500

But if you still find yourself in this situation with someone who won't mask up, don't become part of the problem.

"If you do engage with another traveler, approach the person in a way that's judgment-free, value-neutral, and presumes that the issue is just an innocent mistake and not deliberately malicious," advises Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert who hosts the "Were You Raised by Wolves?" podcast. "The right tone is often the key ingredient to successfully defusing and resolving sticky etiquette situations."

How to get someone to socially distance

Jeanie Johnston, a tour operator based in Minneapolis, says putting the problem in context is helpful. For example, on a recent visit to Disney World, she found herself standing in line behind a group of people who were not observing the social distancing rule. Before she politely asked them to give her some space, she noted that the park had been open during the pandemic. "They have not had a case since July," she told the group. "Can you believe that?"

Johnston's pitch: Don't you want Disney World to stay open? And she said it as nicely as she could. It worked; the group gave her some space. "Kindness and empathy can move mountains," she says. Or in her case, maybe, Space Mountain.

How to get someone to use hand sanitizer or follow a disinfection protocol

But what about the travelers who refuse to use sanitizer or observe health guidelines? A stern lecture about washing your hands is about as welcome during the pandemic as ever. Experts like Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, say you're better off emphasizing the importance of your behavior to the welfare of the group. Romanoff says American travelers tend to be individualistic, and "place a larger emphasis on striving to meet personal needs over those of the group as a whole."

A polite reminder that their actions have consequences is helpful. But so is sharing your hand sanitizer.

And there's that word again: politeness! As someone who helps people resolve travel problems every day, I can tell you that a little politeness takes you a long way. A very long way. Don't forget to pack your manners when you travel.

Mistakes to avoid when dealing with travelers who think the rules don't apply to them

Don't get aggressive. Demanding that someone mask up or stand 6 feet away may make things worse when you're traveling. "Acting poorly with incivility gives others permission to do so," says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. "Instead, take a deep breath and try to acknowledge the stress and steer the person in a more civil direction."

Don't make it about you. Tamar Chansky, a psychologist and author of "Freeing Yourself from Anxiety," says using "we" instead of "you" is one of the keys to persuading people to follow the rules. "'You' language is accusatory and increases stress level," she says. " 'We' language lowers stress and fosters connection." For example, saying "We’re all trying to stay safe in this time," is a more effective approach than, "Use hand sanitizer!"

Don't lose your cool. That's the advice of Alyza Berman, founder and clinical director of the Berman Center, a mental-health treatment center in Atlanta. "Tensions over health concerns are high right now given rising COVID infections," she says. "This can lead to one wanting to react with an immediate response to shame or forcefully assert their request for someone to follow CDC and aviation guidelines." Instead of escalating, consider kindly offering clarification or helpful directions to the travelers violating the rules.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dealing with travelers who don't think COVID-19 rules apply to them