How to talk to people who still aren’t social distancing - GulfToday

How to talk to people who still aren’t social distancing

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This photo has been used for illustrative purpose only.

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, governments all over the world have asked people to practise social distancing, which includes not attending public places or gatherings, not hosting parties and not leaving the house until absolutely necessary.

However, there still are people who are not heeding government instructions. For example, last week in Philadelphia, residents were still hosting and attending tailgates and college parties, resulting in angry 311 calls and photos on social media shaming participants for their actions.


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While criticising people on social media may be tempting, experts say that people interested in changing the behaviour of their neighbours, friends, and family members who aren’t staying home and maintaining a six-foot distance from others should pursue a different avenue: empathy.

Before initiating a conversation about social distancing, it’s important to understand the psychology behind why some people refuse to participate, said Syon Bhanot, a behavioural economist and assistant professor at Swarthmore College. In general, he said, people are not as responsive to threats they cannot see, like a virus, and some may think the situation is not serious because they’re not “seeing people falling down on a street from being sick.”

“They’re seeing people walking their dogs, the nice weather, and thinking, ‘What’s the big deal?’” Bhanot said. “There’s also the phenomenon of when you feel that your freedom is being threatened, you push back against it.”

Bhanot also noted that young people may feel a false sense of security because they are considered low-risk for severe complications from the virus, and therefore be unwilling to take on the burden of social distancing and isolation. 

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Social-Distancing-750 A man and a woman practice social distancing during the lockdown in central Brussels, Belgium. File/Reuters

For some, ignoring guidelines may be a coping mechanism to deal with their heightened anxiety about the pandemic, said Jeff Wolper, founder and director of the Wolper Institute for Group Learning in New York City. He noted a common psychological reaction to anxiety: fight or flight.

“In this case, flight can look like ignoring the situation, being in denial about its seriousness or joking about it,” Wolper said. “Well-meaning people who are approaching those defying social distancing are creating a paradox, because they’re raising the anxiety of those refusing to comply, causing them to dig their feet in further.”

Engaging someone in a conversation about why their behaviour might be hurtful to others is not easy, but is necessary, Bhanot said. But instead of approaching someone in a critical, emotional way, conveying empathy will likely get better results.

“Maybe your neighbours have a job and they’re working from home, and because they have to get their work done, they tell their kids to go play outside,” he said. “You could tell them that you understand why they have to do this, but that your community is worried, and keeping their kids inside could be better for the neighbourhood. And you could also help them come up with some ideas for the problem, instead of saying, ‘How dare you!’”

Consider that posting pictures of people flouting social distancing recommendations on social media can send the wrong message, Bhanot said.

“Maybe someone who is struggling with being cooped up in the house sees your post,” he said. “And they think, ‘Oh! It can’t be that bad. Maybe I should leave and walk around.’ In the meantime, you’re not actually breaking up the gathering you’re witnessing.”

Wolper said that finding ways to bring down people’s anxiety level before giving advice about social distancing is key. Because of the uncertainty of the pandemic, “coping strategies are peaked,” he said, and it’s important to prioritise the person you’re talking with.

Bhanot said most people are not ignoring social distancing recommendations because they want to hurt others, but are acting in their own best interest under the circumstances without considering the consequences.

“It’s possible to find a compromise,” he said. “I don’t think that these people hate their towns or their communities. They’re just not really thinking through the damage that their actions might be causing.”

Tribune News Service

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