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What to Do When Other People Aren't Social Distancing

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistMay 14, 2020

I was recently on our afternoon hike with my wife and kids, dutifully wearing our masks and observing social distancing guidelines. Suddenly a runner without a mask passed us from behind, huffing and puffing his breath cloud into our shared air as he came within two or three feet of us. I was irritated that a person potentially could expose us to the coronavirus when we were doing our best to protect ourselves and others.

If you’re being strict with your social distancing, chances are there are people around you who are being less careful. While the majority of Americans seem to understand the need to limit contact with others to slow the spread of the coronavirus, people vary widely in their social distancing practices.

Maybe you wear a face mask religiously in public, while many around you go maskless. Or maybe some people seem oblivious to the six-foot distance guidelines that you faithfully observe.

You might be more careful about social distancing than some of your friends and neighbors, or even the people you live with. Maybe your spouse doesn’t take the virus as seriously as you do, or your teenaged kids act like you’re freaking out for no reason and ignore your pleas to social distance.

What can you do if you find yourself in a situation where others seem to be throwing caution to the wind?

Safety Considerations

First, be very careful about confronting a stranger about their social distancing practices. This topic is highly charged and has become a major point of contention in the debate about how and when to restart the economy.

Attempts to change others’ behavior could potentially trigger a violent reaction, as has happened several times. You also risk prolonging contact with someone who is at an elevated risk for carrying the coronavirus, given their disregard for social distancing; if they approach you and start yelling, you could get infected.

If you notice a persistent problem, contact those who are responsible for the space—for example, the manager of your grocery store or the authorities who oversee your local trails.

Beware of Catastrophizing

Keep in mind that the risk is low for contracting COVID-19 from very small deviations in the social distancing guidelines. For example, if a fellow hiker stumbles and briefly comes within five feet of you, it’s unlikely you’ve just contracted the virus (which would also depend on their carrying it). While it might be frustrating to feel like others aren’t doing all they can to keep their distance, avoid making yourself more distressed than necessary.

Be Generous

I recently discovered that a family member and I had very different views on what constituted effective social distancing. We follow very similar practices, which I believed to be close to 100 percent compliant with the recommendations, while they saw us as being more like 89 percent compliant. I was shocked to learn that what I saw as an A+, they gave a B+! So those who are less careful than you might think they’re doing a bang-up job of social distancing.

Aim to make the kindest possible interpretation for why others aren’t being as scrupulous about social distancing. It may not be that they’re “selfish,” “arrogant,” or ”uninformed”. They might just have a different understanding of risk and of the need to take precautions, and might think they’re actually being quite careful.

Maybe they think, for example, that it’s okay to get close to you in the grocery store since you’re both wearing masks (though the CDC guidelines say to “keep at least 6 feet between yourself and others, even when you wear a face covering”). Similarly, many people don’t seem to know that their leashed pets also need to maintain social distance. Making a different judgment about the reason behind their behavior can make you feel less upset by it (even if the actions themselves are no less risky).

Communicate Honestly to Loved Ones

Let friends or family members know if you’re concerned about their social distancing practices. You may not change their minds or their behavior, but at least you’ll know you did what you could to protect them and those they encounter.

Be clear and firm about where your boundaries are. Don’t feel pressured to change your behavior if local family or friends try to convince you to hang out with them. Even if they say you’re being “ridiculous” or “paranoid,” you don’t have to compromise what you believe is right and what you’re comfortable with. 

The biggest challenge may come when you and a family member you live with don’t see eye to eye on social distancing. Talk openly with your loved one about your concern, using positive assertive communication:

  • Take ownership for your thoughts and feelings, rather than making accusations. For example, say, “I worry that you’re going to bring the virus home to Grandpa,” rather than, “You’re being really stupid and selfish.”  
  • Say what’s on your mind as calmly and rationally as possible. The fear you feel about the virus will likely lead to anger, but an aggressive tone will just put the other person on the defensive and lead nowhere.
  • Listen to the other person’s perspective. Try to understand their thoughts and feelings, rather than listening only for what you disagree with. You may not agree with their conclusions, but it helps to know where they’re coming from. If they feel truly heard they may also be more willing to consider changing their behavior.

Control What You Can

Trying to make others do what you want is unlikely to work and usually only leads to frustration. Ultimately you can only control yourself. You can’t force your fellow pedestrians to give a wide berth on sidewalks and trails, for example, but you can take measures to stay as far from them as possible. You might need to limit your exposure to public spaces to the least busy times of day, or avoid narrow trails that make distancing difficult.

Remind yourself of the value of accepting the limits of what you can control. This requires a deep level of acceptance, which doesn’t mean resignation. You can care about this issue a great deal, even as you acknowledge that your control is limited.

 

 

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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