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How to Keep Your Distance and Your Friends

Dear Steve,

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m trying to be safe by following the health practices outlined by the CDC, WHO, and other officials. I don’t consider myself stringent, nor lax. I feel I am somewhere in between. But apparently that’s not how others see me. My requests for distance have offended others. I try to be kind, and yet people respond in a huff as though I’m an unreasonable jerk. What should I do?

Conscientious and Confused

Dear Conscientious,

Thank you for your excellent question. I witnessed an incident between a customer and storeowner that perfectly portrays the conflict you’re describing. It started with a curse word. Which was followed by an explanation, along with more curse words. Not to be outdone, the customer retorted with an equally impressive set of curse words, coupled with, well, more curse words. The argument ended with the proprietor demanding that the customer leave his establishment—immediately!

I watched this interaction between proprietor and customer transpire in less time than it takes to microwave popcorn. Did it have to end this way? No. Did either want it to end this way? Probably not. Yet, both felt justified in his response, and might respond the same way again, if faced with a similar situation.

Unfortunately, since the arrival of the novel coronavirus and the measures people are taking to contain it, this type of interaction has become more common. It seems the precautionary measures themselves aren’t so controversial, but where and how they are applied can be. It turns out that different people have different risk-tolerance levels and different ideas of risk, which leads to opportunities for conflict.

In 2015, VitalSmarts conducted a study looking at how unconscious bias contributes to conflict, and whether it’s possible to reduce its impact. And while that particular study was about unconscious gender bias, we also have unconscious biases about health and hygiene.

We learned from that 2015 study that we can reduce the influence of unconscious bias on behavior by explicitly framing certain situations.

Framing is the act of sharing background and rationale for one’s behavior in order to dispel assumptions—or biases—about it. It’s useful for dealing with a broad or vague context where behavior can be misinterpreted. The broad context in the case of COVID-19 is the everyday interaction between people. By expressing your purpose and motive for specific health-related behaviors, you clear up unknowns that might otherwise allow unconscious bias to generate misunderstanding.

While there are different frames you could use, let me offer two that might be particularly useful in the event you decline to shake someone’s hand, ask a guest to cough into their arm, invite someone to remain on the porch, or follow some other COVID-related health practice.

The Behavioral Frame: With a behavioral frame, you signal to others what you intend to do, and then you proceed to do it. This frame helps remove the surprise that often accompanies unanticipated actions. Instead of leaving the person to their own potentially inaccurate interpretation of your actions, you provide context up front. For example, the cursing cousins we started with might have had a more fruitful exchange had one led with, “Just so you know, we’re wiping down all the counters and doorknobs after anybody touches them to ensure these common areas stay germ-free. So, I’m going to disinfect this display case after you’re done looking.”

The Value Frame: The value frame highlights the “why” of your actions. While your values are readily apparent to you, they typically aren’t to others. So, help them understand what your actions mean to you and how they relate to less obvious values. As with the retail altercation described above, we often resort to this frame after a situation has escalated, which can have the effect of a guilt trip. Instead, try leading with it. It might sound something like, “It might seem excessive to you, but I’m taking extra precaution to keep the area and myself sanitized because I have a three-year-old-daughter who’s in the high-risk category.”

As you find yourself in these types of situations in the days and weeks to come, remember you don’t have to choose between keeping yourself safe and keeping friends. Choose both. Use a behavior frame, a value frame, or both to help yourself and others avoid rash judgements and conflict.

Good luck,

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7 thoughts on “How to Keep Your Distance and Your Friends”

  1. isnt it obvious

    Why do we have to explain that we are keeping social distancing guidelines and good hygiene. That should be common sense!
    And why are people meeting anyway. Go home and stay home – that is all we should be doing. Don’t apologize for helping to stop this virus.
    if people don’t understand the point of social distancing they need to learn that guidelines are there to protect everyone. They are lucky they are not laws. Personally, if your not obeying the guidelines you should face dire consequences.

  2. Anne Apynys

    I am a nurse working in a hospital with lots of Covid patients and I am astonished and horrified that this is even an issue. I agree with the previous commenter: go home and stay home. This is not an issue of beliefs: Covid is real and your beliefs will not protect you from that reality. Every time someone challenges social distancing It feels like a slap in the face to every health care worker who is putting their own lives on the line caring for Covid patients. I don’t wish Covid on anyone but I cannot help but feel that every act of resistance to Covid health restrictions is a type of suicidal wish. Everyone — please go home and stay home. It’s an issue of public health and we are all members of the public.

  3. Darrell

    Great advice, Steve to preempt a misunderstanding. Of course, you could also add a contrast statement after the fact if you find that someone has misunderstood your intent.

  4. Steve Willis

    I think we run into danger of creating deeper divides than necessary when we feel we have the moral high ground. When we’re in the right, it’s easy to think, “why should we have to explain anything? We shouldn’t have to excuse our actions.” In this state, we often give ourselves permission to respond to others in ways that come across as lecturing or preachy.

    Bandura suggests that we often approach others in these circumstances as though they were morally deficient; as though our job is to drive values back into them. He goes on to suggest that most people aren’t devoid of values, but have slipped into a “value slumber.”

    For me this is where framing has become so useful. It’s less about a apologizing and more about educating. I’m helping others understand my actions, without creating immediate resistance. And, many times, creating a new understanding in them as to why these actions might be important for them also.

  5. Gracie

    When I remember to use either a behavioral frame or value frame and I do it properly, it results in understanding and connection.

    Excellent! And thank you for this extremely valuable reminder!

    1. Steve Willis

      Glad you found it useful

      1. william shore

        this is very useful information

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