Social distancing can create many social dilemmas.  One of them is how to ask other people to keep their distance in public spaces. Asking others, especially strangers, to keep a safe distance away from you may not always be easy. In fact, such a request recently resulted in a violent altercation in which a women was attacked for asking someone  to keep their distance.   Although violent reactions may be rare, people may feel some awkwardness, if not trepidation, when  asking others to maintain a safe distance.

One of the reasons for this is that we are socialized to avoid imposing on others, especially people  we don’t know.  Normally, we aren’t supposed to go around asking—or, worse, telling—strangers to behave in certain ways, and doing so can seem rude, disrespectful, or even threatening. However, how others react to  a request depends on the way we ask. We can use several  linguistic strategies  to make requests, strategies that differ in terms of their clarity as well as their level of  rudeness or imposition.

In choosing what strategy to use, we face  a tradeoff between being clear in our request and seeming to be offensive, imposing, or threatening.  The clearer our request, the more imposing, off-putting, or threatening it may sound.  But if we try to not to come on too strong, our request may be less clear.  

For example, the least threatening request strategy is to provide some sort of hint about what you want the other person to do, hoping that the recipient will recognize the intended meaning. For example, “It’s warm in here” can function as a request to turn down the thermostat, but the other person may interpret it as a simple observation about the temperature rather than a request to turn the heat down.  In terms of social distancing, one could hint with something like “I think you might be too close to me,” but this strategy can backfire  because some people may not recognize the intended meaning. On the other hand, the most direct—and most threatening—strategy is to explicitly say “Turn down the thermostat.” With social distancing, a direct strategy would be to say something like “Keep your distance” or “Stay 6 feet away from me.”  Although the meaning is certainly clear, you risk  offending the other person. 

Instead of these two extreme strategies, research suggests that the optimal strategy, at least in most Western cultures, is to seek a middle ground and use some form of what is termed “positive politeness.” Positive politeness is relatively direct but simultaneously emphasizes solidarity, or closeness, with the other person.  And it can be combined with more direct forms of requests to create an optimal message frame. 

Consider the statement, “Let’s be safe! Please keep your distance.”  The positive politeness component, “Let’s be safe,” emphasizes a mutual goal rather than just your own  individual desire.  So, rather than requesting the other person to do something that you want, you are asserting a mutual goal—let’s both be safe. Including  the direct statement,  “Keep your distance,” combined with the politeness marker, “Please,” then makes your request  clear, but in a polite way.

So, combining positive politeness with a direct request provides an optimal balance between maximizing clarity and minimizing offensiveness to the other person.  Give positive politeness a try the next time that stranger gets too close.

For Further Reading

Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson (1987). Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holtgraves, Thomas. (2001) Language as social action: Social psychology and language use. Erlbaum

Thomas Holtgraves is a professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University where he conducts research on various aspects of language use.