A.M. / Lincoln
Everything about COVID is rotten and unfair and always was. Right now institutions have largely given up and have rolled the burden of COVID prevention onto the shoulders of individuals, many of whom are going back to pre-plague habits. It leaves people such as you in a lonely and unfortunate bind, and I’m sorry that’s where you are.
Let the particulars of the relationship and event guide how you turn down invitations. Very often when people have emotionally charged reasons for not attending an event, the weightiness of that reason feels like important information to convey. Sometimes it is — and sometimes Betty Blockparty is just trying to figure out how big a sushi boat to order, and “We’d love to but can’t!” is all she needs or wants to hear.
You say more to closer friends, because they need to know you’re not avoiding them. The phrasing in your question is polite as all heck — you can certainly use that. You want to convey two messages: that neither your friend nor you are at fault, the predicament is caused by the situation; and that you value your friend and want to spend time with them. (Everyone is more insecure than you think.) You don’t have to explain all your reasons, but you should give friends a sense of your parameters. What do you feel safe doing? Be proactive about inviting people to activities that you’re comfortable with. Is your level of caution going to be more or less permanent? If so, engage with your friends to figure out workable “friend time” solutions. Are there variables that affect how cautious you’re being? Let your friends know when and how you might be able to ease up.
At craft fairs or flea markets, I feel awkward looking through the vendors’ wares without buying anything — especially if I take one look and decide they are not my taste, but the artist is sitting right there. What is the best way to be polite but to not buy something I don’t want, especially if you are the only person at the booth?
M.P. / Boston
Here’s the thing about people in public-facing jobs: You are not their first rodeo. You’re feeling awkward on behalf of the vendors, but they’re not feeling that way themselves. They set up that booth knowing that they were going to get a dozen or more “Huh, look at that, nope” responses for every tchotchke they sold.
Just don’t handle your discomfort with the classic Boston maneuver of avoiding eye contact and pretending the other person isn’t there, as if we were infants who hadn’t acquired object permanence yet. Acknowledge the vendor, smile, say “Nice things!” or “Great fair!” or something, and move on. You’re golden!
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.