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Social Graces: Is it rude to ask how someone got COVID-19?

It’s best to skip the why and how of illness — especially COVID-19 — and stick with good wishes for a speedy recovery.

When a friend or relative tells you they have contracted COVID-19, it’s best to skip the why and how of illness and stick with good wishes for a speedy recovery. Tribune News Service photo

Q: Is it OK to ask people how they got COVID-19?

A: Absolutely. When people mention they’ve had COVID-19 or know someone who’s contracted the virus, the natural next thought is, “How did they get it?” As humans, we question everything, and inquiring minds want (need) to know, especially with a virus that has basically brought our lives to a screeching halt. While asking people how they got COVID-19 can appear nosy, it’s not. We’re all just trying to understand for our own edification and to prevent spreading it to others.

However, our delivery and choice of words truly matter. When we’re empathetic, it adds a softening that makes people feel safe, and therefore we’re much more likely to obtain an open, honest answer. An accusatory tone makes people feel judged and is guaranteed to put them on the defense and less willing to share specific details.

There’s no denying a certain amount of stigma is swirling around the virus, and while it’s significantly worse, our reaction is similar to the way we typically run for the hills when we hear someone has the stomach flu or a child has lice. So if you inquire, be considerate and caring, as opposed to collecting facts or assigning blame. We all want to steer clear of the contagion, but we have to remain civil and respectful above all.

Lisa Gaché, etiquette expert and founder of Beverly Hills Manners


A: While society has become more open and it’s quite rare that any topic is taboo, inquiring how someone may have become ill is still in poor taste. Some subjects, especially this one, remain sacred and personal.

Inquiring in depth about anyone’s private health issues remains in poor taste as it is considered an invasion of privacy. Think of it this way: Would you want to share extensive details about how and possibly why you caught the virus? Putting yourself in the shoes of the other person tends to allow people to err on the side of caution and civility.

It’s best to skip the why and how of illness — especially COVID-19 — and stick with good wishes for a speedy recovery.

Karen Thomas, etiquette expert

©2020 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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