ôô

How to Respond (Kindly) to People Who Don't Social Distance

Lockdown restrictions are lifting in communities across the globe, but we're not all on the same page when it comes to how we manage ourselves in public spaces. Here's how to navigate the stormy seas of re-entry with empathy and kindness. 

By
Karen Lunde Hertzberg
8-minute read
woman shopping wearing facemask covid-19
The Quick And Dirty

When you encounter people who aren't practicing social distancing, respond with kindness instead of criticism. To prevent or address problems as you venture back out into the world:

  • Ask for cooperation. Use a gentle "it's not you; it's me" approach to ask people to step back and give you space.
  • Be the change. Don't tell people how to act; show them.
  • Empathize, but protect yourself. Don't engage in conflicts; take the high road and walk away.

It's scary out there. Not only are we stressed by the heartbreaking events we witness in the news every day, but many of us are uneasy about stepping out into a world that has changed drastically over the past few months of practicing social distancing.

There's no simple solution, but empathy and compassion will take us far as we navigate the stormy seas of re-entry.

Chances are, the people you encounter when you venture into public spaces range from those who fear that the novel coronavirus is lurking everywhere to those who believe it's no big deal. (Spoiler alert: It's a big deal.) As lockdown restrictions begin to ease around the world, but social distancing and hygiene protocols are still very much in place, how should you behave as you venture out into public places?

There's no simple solution, but empathy and compassion will take us far as we navigate the stormy seas of re-entry.

A saga of checkout lines and coughing kids

Last week, I ventured into the grocery store to gather the necessary items to survive another week of social distancing. At the door, an attendant—clad in disposable gloves and a face mask—passed me a freshly sanitized shopping cart. A sign at the door explained that aisles were one-way and that everyone was required to keep a minimum distance of six feet between themselves and other customers.

This is how shopping looks in the wake of COVID-19. I accepted it, and I felt appreciative of the store's efforts to keep me and other shoppers safe. A spirit of camaraderie swelled inside me. "We're in this together," I thought. "We're going to make it."

But as I progressed through the store, I realized that not everyone was wearing a face mask. (They're recommended here in my state, but not explicitly required.) Some people weren't following the one-way store traffic patterns, either.

As I shopped, that warm feeling of fellowship dissolved. I no longer felt we were in this together because some of us didn't seem to be playing by the rules.

But as I shopped, that warm feeling of fellowship dissolved. I no longer felt we were in this together because some of us didn't seem to be playing by the rules. By the time I got in line at the check stand (where six-foot social distancing lines marked the floor and plexiglass shields stood between shoppers and checkout clerks), I was stressed and wary.

That's when a mom and her three young children got in line behind me. The kids weren't wearing face masks, and they were milling around touching the impulse items in the checkout line. One child, who was about four years old, launched into a barking cough. And like a typical four-year-old, he hadn't yet developed the habit of coughing into the crook of his elbow.

As I imagined little viral droplets sailing through the air, I felt a visceral disgust that caused me to shrink back, eyes wide.

The coughing child's mother grabbed him by the arm and pulled him close to her. "You're scaring the lady," she admonished.

Revulsion is a normal evolutionary defense

I felt bad about my reaction to the child. I realized he'd probably been spending a lot of time cooped up inside and away from playmates, and I could empathize. Like his siblings, I'm certain he was excited to be out of the house and among people. I did wish that his mother had taken precautions, but I reminded myself that stressing about things outside my control doesn't accomplish anything.

I also had to remind myself that my horrified response is not only normal, it's something we humans have evolved to do. The disgust and avoidance we feel when we see visible signs of illness are part of a finely tuned suite of behaviors among the animal kingdom known as parasite (or pathogen) avoidance.

Disgust is evolution's way of discouraging us from exposing ourselves to things that could make us sick.

Pathogen avoidance is part of our behavioral immune system. Disgust—our response to stimuli (usually visual) that reminds us of disease—is evolution's way of discouraging us from exposing ourselves to things that could make us sick. That's why the sight of vomit, an infected wound, or even a child's runny nose can trigger strong feelings of revulsion. And naturally, the more extreme those images are, the stronger our disgust response.

So, hooray!—your feelings of disgust and your compulsion to avoid anything with the potential to make you sick are perfectly normal and even useful. But knowing those feelings are normal won't protect you from that coughing child in line or the people who haven't adopted mask-wearing or keeping a safe distance as their new-normal habit.

How should you respond to people who don't follow social distancing guidelines?

I certainly thought some judgmental things when I encountered the grocery store family—I'll own that. How could the mom be so careless? Wasn't she worried about herself or her children being exposed to a dangerous virus? Worse, why was she so cavalier about a child who seemed to have no compunctions about coughing toward other people without covering the cough, much less wearing a mask?

Judging people may be a nearly spontaneous reaction in social situations, but it isn't helpful when it comes to affecting another person's behavior.

I kept my judgments to myself. Judging people may be a nearly spontaneous reaction in social situations, but it isn't helpful when it comes to affecting another person's behavior. (Think of a time when someone judged you. Did it make you want to be a better person, or did it make you feel hurt, ashamed, angry, or defensive? I rest my case.)

I chose to turn away from the mom and her children, hurry through the checkout line, and make a quick getaway so I could douse my hands with hand sanitizer in the car. When I got home, I took all the necessary precautions—thoroughly scrubbing my hands, washing my face, and even changing into clean clothes. (In this extreme case, I felt that exercising an abundance of caution made sense.)

But I missed an opportunity to take some steps in the moment that might have positively influenced the outcome and created a better experience for me, the mom, and even her kids. Here are a few ways I could have responded.

1. Ask for cooperation

We already talked about how people respond defensively to feeling judged. Snapping, "Hey, would you keep your coughing kids away from me?!" wouldn't have had a positive influence on the young mom's behavior.

Instead, I could have asked for her cooperation and softened the interaction with an "it's not you; it's me" approach:

I'm feeling anxious about how closed in we are here. Would you and your family like to take my place in line so I can get a little space? I'd appreciate it!

Sure, having to wait longer in a new line would've been an inconvenience, but it's a fair trade. It would've enabled me to put a comfortable distance between myself and the family while knowing that I'd been kind and empathetic in the process.

Or I could have made the mom my ally, stressing that we're all in this together.

Would you and your family please move a few steps back? I want us all to be safe.

Notice I didn't mention the coughing child. That's because I'm a mom, and I know that one sure way to rankle a parent is to come across as criticizing either her children or her parenting skills. My goal should have been to accomplish the same objective—making space between myself and a potentially viral little one—without being critical.

2. Be the change

Anyone who's spent time on social media should, in theory, understand that chastising people for their behavior or beliefs does little or nothing to change them. I'm willing to bet your uncle Ralph—the one who's on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you—has never had a worldview-changing revelation as a result of you pointing out the flaws in his logic. If anything, a challenge probably makes him dig in and defend his stance even more vehemently.

Don't tell people how to act; show them.

If you wish others would wear face masks, cheerfully wear one yourself and respond positively to other people wearing them. Nod and smile (with your eyes) when someone keeps a respectful distance. If there's an elder in line, consider offering your spot so they can move through faster.

Model the behavior you hope others will adopt. It won't change anyone on a dime, but the effects of kindness and respect toward others are cumulative. 

Model the behavior you hope others will adopt. It won't change anyone on a dime, and it won't stop a child in line from coughing in your direction, but the effects of kindness and respect toward others are cumulative. People who witness kindness are more likely to pay it forward.

3. Empathize with others, but protect yourself

When it comes to a harried mom and her children, I'm confident that I can communicate my needs effectively without causing a scuffle. But what if the person in line behind me had instead been a large, angry-looking man who looked ready to pick a fight?

Humans are social creatures. Even the most introverted among us crave human connection, touch, and a break from isolation. Now, add caution fatigue—a decline in our motivation to comply with safety guidelines over time—to the mix. Oh, and remember that we're all not only in various stages of coping with isolation and fatigue, but we're also tuning into conflicting messages across our social and news media channels. While one person may cautiously adhere to CDC or World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, another may have heard a stream of messages claiming that the virus is no worse than the flu (it's worse) or been exposed to the unscientific musings and opinions of pundits or conspiracy theorists.

When it comes to coping with the coronavirus crisis, we're not all in the same mental and emotional place.

It's important to understand that, when it comes to coping with the coronavirus crisis, we're not all in the same mental and emotional place. Although most of us want to do our best to cooperate and collaborate with our fellow human beings, it's also safe to assume that others are unable or unwilling, for myriad reasons, to embrace the zeitgeist.

If you sense that interacting with someone could be potentially dangerous, or an interaction starts to escalate, do the wise thing—remove yourself from the situation.

I can see that what I said upset you. Let's not take this any further. I'm going to leave now.

And then walk away. That may mean you end up abandoning a cart full of groceries or leaving that queue outside the store just as you were getting close to the entrance, but that's okay. Your safety is more important than avoiding a temporary inconvenience.

Compliance is kindness

If you're reading this article, my guess is that you have an altruistic spirit—you want what's best for society as a whole, and you're willing to endure some personal hardship to make that happen.

Practicing empathy and compassion is hard emotional work, but taking social distancing guidelines seriously isn't just a personal obligation; it's a moral one. So, let me thank you for being cooperative and collaborative, modeling good behavior, and taking an understanding and kind approach to protecting yourself and others.

Together, we can do this.

About the Author

Karen Lunde Hertzberg

Karen Lunde Hertzberg is QDT's editor and content strategist. Her eclectic background includes pioneering an online writing school in the late 90s, leading an editorial team of video game journalists, managing massive public and media relations campaigns, and writing hundreds of articles on writing and communication.

You May Also Like...