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Tips from a former White House protocol chief on being diplomatic in trying times

Like the rest of us, Capricia Penavic Marshall is figuring out how to navigate the awkward new world of social interactions as safely and graciously as possible as the coronavirus crisis moves through different phases.

She has struggled with seeing friends, in groups of only one or two, socially distanced and wearing masks. She has declined offers to visit when numbers seemed too high and too risky, especially since her 92-year-old mother recently moved into her Washington home. When friends of hers and her husband's and their 20-year-old son come for a backyard visit, she directs them to a designated basement bathroom stocked with disinfecting supplies that is accessed directly from the backyard and is not used by the rest of the family.

But unlike most of us, Marshall has served several presidential administrations in positions that make her an expert in diplomacy and manners. She was deputy assistant to the president and White House social secretary to President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton, and she was chief of protocol for President Barack Obama.

"People are uncertain about so much these days," Marshall says. "Everything is completely new to them, and they are trying to figure out: 'How am I supposed to behave? How am I supposed to engage? Is there a new way I can do that?' The beauty of protocol is that it helps guide you and provides the road map and clarity for people so they know what's expected."

Her just-published book, "Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make it Work for You," is a memoir of her life in top levels of government and a handbook of how to navigate everyday interactions.

Thinking through the details of an event in advance is as important in bilateral meetings at the State Department as it is in planning to slowly reconnect with people in coronavirus times. Preparation is everything. "You must figure out what you want to do as a host, and those invited should have a very specific expectation of how to behave," she says. Everyone has to figure out "what is welcoming, what is civil and what is respectful," she says. And always, Marshall says, be ready for Plan B.

She cautions: "First and foremost, look to the rules and regulations set forth in your city and state, and use that as a guide. It gives you a framework from which to invite people," Marshall says. (The latest official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at cdc.gov, also has recommendations regarding gatherings.)

Marshall addressed some of the sticky life situations occurring today. This excerpt of our interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: What's a polite way to ask someone to wear a mask?

A: Tensions are high, and people have different opinions on this. But if people are coming to your home or office, your rules rule. Let people know in advance that this is a mask-wearing environment and BYOM - bring your own mask. A polite way to ask someone to wear one might be: "Excuse me, in accordance with the regulations of the city, we are all required to wear masks. I have an extra new one if you need one?" (I try to carry a new one in my bag.)

Q: How do you respond to an invitation you think is risky?

A: Everyone has their own set level of risk they want to take. You can't expect someone who is hosting an event to have the same risk level as you. If they are doing something that is not allowed by the rules and regulations of the phase they are in, give people guidance and advice in a helpful manner, not in a confrontational way or to pass judgment. Just try to inform. Tensions are high, and people have different opinions on this. If a host is within the proper guidance, but I still do not feel comfortable going to an event, I would let the host know to please excuse me, but due to my personal situation, I need to be extra careful with my contact level and cannot attend.

Q: Can you ask to bring a plus-one to a small outdoor gathering?

A: People are only now starting to gather in small groups, ones, twos or threes. You should absolutely not ask to bring an extra person to any event these days. Show your respect to your host. They invited you and were looking forward to enjoying your company alone. Someone else adds another element of risk. Do not surprise people these days. They are already feeling uncertain.

Q: What if you see your friends being non-socially distant on social media? Should you comment on that?

A: If they are saying they are staying home and you see they went to a pool party on the Fourth of July with 40 people not wearing masks, how do you call them out? Use the straightforward approach: "I would normally have come to your house, but I noticed you were at a gathering attended by quite a lot of people and you were not wearing a mask. Maybe in 14 days we can consider getting together again."

Q: It's awkward to stay seated as friends are carrying food or clearing dishes, even at a small gathering. Should you offer to help? Most people don't want you in their house.

A: You can of course let people know you would love to help. The host can say: "We prefer that only our family come in, but thanks so much for the offer."

Q: How should you handle the tricky question of letting guests use the bathroom?

A: It's such a delicate subject to address. Decide what your policy is. If you are going to let them, tell them in advance: "I am happy you will be coming to my home. We wear masks here. And for use of the powder room, there are sanitizers and paper guest towels in the bathroom for you to use." If your rules are that you don't let anyone in your house to use the bathroom, make sure you tell them before they arrive.

Q: What can replace handshaking as a greeting?

A: We are redefining all of that. The handshake isn't the traditional manner of greeting in all countries. It also varies with age and experience. Some people give a sort of "how ya doing" salute. There's a lot of air kissing.I often use the namaste or the head-nod greeting.

Q: What can you say to a close friend who you think is taking on too much risk?

A: I don't think you want to call someone out. You want to inform them. They may be acting out of a lack of knowledge as opposed to knowingly acting in a bad way. I'd let them know "these are the guidelines that everyone is abiding by." Send them articles that are useful, saying "this is information I want to share with you." If they are aware of the guidelines and are having large amounts of guests over, you should think through your friendship and determine if this is someone you want to socialize with. They are putting not only themselves but others at risk as well. We are all in this together.

 

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