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Pandemic Etiquette: Navigating Awkward Conversations During COVID-19

Aug 13, 2020 By Devin Collins
Friends elbow bumping

While things like hugging and sharing food were normal behaviors a few months ago, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed social interaction. After months of staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people are now finding it tricky to adhere to safety guidelines in many social situations, leading to some awkward conversations with friends and family.

Our healthcare providers are no strangers when it comes to difficult and uncomfortable conversations, so we’ve asked them to share how they would handle tough COVID-19-related social situations. Here are some strategies you can employ when confronting friends, family, and even strangers about their social distancing and mask-wearing practices:

When a stranger gets too close to you

If you are in line at a grocery store or in another public setting and someone comes within your six foot bubble, your first instinct may be to snap or yell. Instead of immediately getting upset with this person for not following safety guidelines, try not to presume malicious intent. “Change your mindset and remember that this person is likely coming too close by accident,” says Michael Richardson, MD. “Bring the spacing issue to their attention and let them know you are very anxious about COVID-19 and the spacing helps you feel safe.” Most people are consumed with their own thoughts and actions as they move through public spaces, so it’s likely they aren’t aware of how close they are to you and are just trying to navigate the setting as best as possible. Try to remember that everyone has different levels of comfortability and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you feel inclined to say something, do so with respect and humility, rather than shaming them for their behavior. Instead of accusing the other person of doing something wrong, express your own feelings and concerns about the situation. People are less willing to comply and more likely to get defensive if they feel like they are being lectured or judged.

When a friend or family member goes in for a handshake, hug, or kiss

While it may feel impolite to deny one of these greetings, you can still do so respectfully. “Use body language by holding out your hand like you’re stopping traffic to halt the other person in their tracks,” says Richardson. “You can then apologize for not returning their embrace and instead reframe it as something you are still not quite ready for given the pandemic.” Recoiling backwards or stepping back in shock may make the other person feel rejected or less welcomed. Instead, try opting for an elbow or first bump. You can also save the other person some embarrassment by verbally expressing your excitement to see them.

When someone isn’t wearing a mask

When navigating situations like these, it’s important to focus on what you can and can’t control. You may not always be able to change other peoples’ behaviors, but you do have control over your own actions. “Pick and choose your battles,” says Richardson. “If you are considering engaging with a stranger, ask yourself if intervening at this time will change the other person's behavior or escalate the situation.” When it comes to strangers, it may be best to focus on your own safety and put as much distance as possible between yourself and the other person. If your friend or family member isn’t wearing a mask, you may feel more empowered to broach the subject. “If it is someone you are close to, then approach the topic with genuine non-judgemental inquiry,” says Richardson. “Hear them out, as you may be surprised why they are not wearing a mask (e.g they forgot one, can't find one that is comfortable, etc.) and can then help them overcome the barriers preventing them for wearing one.” Everyone is trying to navigate this pandemic to the best of their ability and for the majority of people, wearing a mask is still a relatively new habit to adopt. Try to approach the subject with compassion and understanding and you may be pleasantly surprised. If you also express your own concern and worry about the virus, they may be more willing to change their behavior.

When you are invited to a family gathering, party, wedding or baby shower and don’t know what preventative measures are in place

Assuming everyone follows the same safety precautions as you may put you in an uncomfortable situation. Rather than putting yourself at risk of exposure to COVID-19, ask questions ahead of time so you can make an informed decision about whether to go. “Ask inquisitively and without judgment about what the event will be like,” says Richardson. “It’s easy to sound condescending depending on how you frame the questions, so try to ask questions in the same fun and non-judgmental way as you would about any details for a party.” Ask how many people will be attending, where the gathering is taking place, and if people will be required to wear masks. If anything about their answers makes you feel uncomfortable, politely decline the invitation without challenging them or pushing them to make changes. If it’s their gathering, it is not your responsibility to police them.

When a friend or family member wants to visit but you don’t know how diligent they have been with social distancing or wearing a mask

Before deciding to interact with someone outside your household, you should know how they are responding to the pandemic. Be very cautious and thoughtful about who you decide to let into your bubble and choose people you can trust to be honest about their potential exposure to the virus. “If you don't know, ask.” says Richardson. “We are still in the midst of a pandemic, so it’s ok to ask questions about risky behavior, so long as it's done in a non-judgemental way.” Ask questions about their interactions with others, hand washing, social distancing, and mask usage. If you’re worried about coming across as judgmental, start by telling them about your behavior. “Let them see what informed consent is when engaging with someone else, and they will likely reciprocate the gesture by offering what they have been doing in terms of safety behavior,” says Richardson.

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Devin Collins

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.