"Stay at home, wash your hands, and don't touch your face"
The trifecta to public health officials' advice in curbing the spread of COVID-19 we keep on hearing. We've cancelled any mass gatherings, concerts, sporting events, and asked people to work from home whenever possible.
But, as the period of social distancing extends, whether giving up physical recreational time with family and friends is worth the plausible harm to our emotional and social contentment has been the question for many. Because of that, not everyone is actually practising social distancing measures.
I watched in mild disbelief recently as a friend posted a video of a group gathering at an eatery with no restriction of social distancing applied. Blowing of candles on a birthday cake, full occupation of each table, sharing of drinks from one glass of Flaming Lamborghini.
"Shouldn't it be considered as a small risk if we're all symptom-free?"
People may become defensive with their choice and it can be difficult to hear a friend criticising your life choice during an already highly stressful time. Many have questioned their friends' morals, lost friends, or strained their friendships as friends aren't taking social distancing seriously.
This moment has high stakes and the emerging rifts may not be easily repairable. (Look on Twitter and you can find first-person accounts on this very topic.)
A friend of mine received a group invitation of about 12 people to have a run. In Ontario, where they live, running in a big group has been discouraged since March.
She reminded her friend of the risks and expressed how she's uncomfortable with that. "He responded with 'You could simply just say no, you didn't have to give me a lecture'," said my friend.
A week has passed since he last spoke to my friend.
When feedback from a friend is perceived as criticism
In an interview with The Atlantic, Montreal-based psychologist and friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer shared how it's common for people to perceive input or feedback from a friend as criticism, or even escalate it to a personal insult although it's not meant as one.
"When taking the critics, we don't only hear how we're doing something wrong, but that we're inherently bad," said Kirmayer.
Especially in this situation where a remark like 'You're doing this wrong' comes with an accusation that we're endangering other people's lives- which is, sadly, possible.
A rift like the one my friend described may be easy to repair and they can move past disagreements in normal times. But, the anxiety over the future and worry about endangering their loved ones makes it much harder to forgive and forget.
Kirmayer said, "We find ourselves increasingly irritated and frustrated, bored, lonely, and anxious. So, we then have less patience for those around us."
This is evidently the case in romantic relationships; we channel our frustrations on the people that we're closest to, because of the level of security and comfort. To some extent, this also occurs in friendships.
It's not easy to learn that a friend holds a belief you're repugnant to. This reminds me of what every presidential election felt like; when I was blown away by the voting choices of some people.
"We assume that our friends perceive things the same way as us, so when the opposite of what we expected comes about, that can be very jarring," Kirmayer said.
In empathy, lies the key
However, it is not the moment to lose friends - a time whereby normal routines are totally disrupted, everyone's plans and financial future seems sporadic, and a deadly disease is among us.
So, when a friend has a cavalier attitude towards social distancing, Kirmayer recommends preserving the friendship when possible and using empathy rather than shaming to solve the problem.
Blaming language or accusatory, such as "You shouldn't do that" can be avoided. Instead, start with an open-ended question like "What value is [this measure you don't follow] conflicting with?" It's also important to emphasise that you are concerned about your friend's safety.
Recognising a friend's opinion can make the conversation less confrontational.
"It helps to validate for our friends why this is hard in those conversations. Not to make it seem like taking social distancing seriously is easy," Kirmayer said.
"Offer to do things that make it easier for a friend to take it seriously. Like a simple, 'Can I help? Can I support you in any way?'"
Gestures that make staying at home and chores fun can go a long way. Simple things like sharing recipes or at-home hair colouring video tutorials to metaphorically be present with your friend where they are.
Social distancing only works best if everyone does it
When you protect yourself, you're protecting others. If some people are flouting out of the collective effort, you may feel like they've declined to have your back.
And during this time, reciprocity is a core expectation to not only obeying protocols but also to preserving friendships.
This story is the personal opinion of the writer. You too can submit a story as a SAYS reader by emailing us at [email protected]
Meanwhile, an interesting side effect of the coronavirus pandemic is the number of people who say they are having vivid dreams: