How to talk to family and friends who ignore physical distancing appeals

Youngsters partying it up on beaches. Families gathering en masse in public parks. Seniors balking at curtailing their social lives amid the coronavirus pandemic. How can you persuade those around you to reconsider their behaviour?

'If you start an argument with somebody, you've already lost,' psychologist says

People crowd onto a beach in Destin, Fla., last week despite an order to limit public gatherings. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News/Associated Press)

You've likely seen footage of young people partying it up on beaches last week or families gathering en masse in public parks last weekend. Perhaps you've argued with seniors in your life about needing to curtail their social lives for the time being.

"We've all seen the pictures online of people who seem to think they're invincible," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted on Monday during his daily briefing.

"Well, you're not," he said, directly addressing Canadians who are flouting public health appeals for physical distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

What's behind this behaviour, and how can you persuade those around you to reconsider?

Outside of COVID-19 hotspots like China or Italy (or in their immediate neighbours), changes in public behaviour have initially been "slow to materialize, with many continuing to engage in previous social behaviours," according to Darrell Bricker, global chief executive of public opinion research firm Ipsos.

'It's over there'

"Coronavirus is being seen to be more of an economic threat than a health crisis, which explains partially why people aren't as absolutely engaged in the social distancing behaviours that we're being asked to engage in," Bricker noted Friday during an online Q&A. 

For many in North America, the reaction continues to be: "It's over there. It's not over here," he said.

"There is strong public consensus for closing borders and self-quarantining," but rather than taking the advice themselves, many believe these measures are meant to stop other people "from doing things they shouldn't be doing."

Many people, he said, think: "I'm not the source of the problem. Those other people are the source of the problem."

And contrary to stories and videos being shared, the data doesn't indicate that just one generation group — gen Z or boomers or millennials — is engaging in riskier behaviour than the others. 

People walk and cycle Sunday on the seawall in Vancouver, between English Bay and Sunset Beach. Officials have asked people to maintain a distance of two metres between one another. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

While there's no doubt that "within the boomers, there are some populations that are fairly risky," it's not something common to the entire demographic, said Doug Norris, senior vice president and chief demographer of data, analytics and marketing services firm Environics Analytics. 

By the same token, younger people might tend to be more risky, but we can't paint all of gen Z nor millennials with the same brush, Norris said from Ottawa.

"There is a lot of diversity within [each generational demographic]."

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Strategies for discussion

There could be many reasons why friends and family members are ignoring directives against gathering and socializing in groups, whether it's believing the rules don't apply to them or feeling invulnerable to the notion "nobody is gonna tell me what to do," said Mary Pipher, clinical psychologist and author of Reviving Ophelia and Women Rowing North.

Accordingly, there are a variety of approaches you can try to persuade them otherwise, she said.

  • One starting point is to get into the person's headspace with questions like "how do you see your situation?" and "how do you see it as different from other people?" 

  • Another strategy the Nebraska-based Pipher favours is appealing to a sense of heroism and community. "It's a chance to be a hero. It's a call to sacrifice, and it's an opportunity to grow into even more profound people," she said. "This is a chance when every person in the world can do their part by following the rules."

  • When talking to older rebels taking an "I do what I want" attitude, a shift in perspective could help. You might suggest that they risk "putting a family that cares for them in deep mourning" if they fell ill or died from coronavirus. "Think about who would miss you," Pipher explained. "You owe it to those people to stay alive."

  • For younger folks feeling invulnerable, try discussing the fact that they could spread the virus to a friend who may not have divulged an underlying condition that puts them at higher risk, she said. "You never know, even if you're out with a peer, what else that peer might be dealing with."

  • A good tactic is to share your own experiences, feelings and worries. "Use yourself as someone who is struggling with the same issues. The other person can choose to listen and accept your story — or not."

Pipher stressed the importance of acknowledging that, for some, physical distancing and strictly staying at home can be a true struggle. For example:

  • Extroverts.
  • Those living on their own.
  • People residing in tiny spaces.
  • Those grappling with having lost (or being in danger of losing) their livelihood amid the pandemic. 

Finally, she advises: "If you start an argument with somebody, you've already lost. The whole trick with persuasion is defusing resistance before you're in an argument."

If the person is looking irritated and your voices are being raised, "you might as well not go any further, because anything further is only going to make the person more resistant." 

Pipher sees this unprecedented moment in history as an extraordinary teachable moment about our role in the wider world. "We're all interconnected, and if we don't take care of each other, we won't be OK. Each of our fates is tied to the fate of the whole."

'We are social animals'

Framing your discussion around communal versus individual goals is also the approach advocated by Igor Grossmann, associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and director of the school's Wisdom and Culture lab. 

"It's not about what benefits you. It's what benefits your parents, your friends, your partner," he said.

Grossmann suggests calling on people to be reasonable — "to consider the context, to consider the norms of caring for others" — instead of urging them to be rational, since that person might be an individualist who considers it rational to buck convention or "to maximize their fun" by going outside.

Spring break revellers party together in Pompano Beach, Fla., last week. Florida officials ordered all bars shut for 30 days and many state beaches are turning away crowds due to refusal to engage in social distancing. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

"We are social animals. It's really hard for us to be bound to our little apartments," he said.

And what if the person you're dealing with simply isn't moved by a consideration of others?

Grossmann proposes appealing to his or her immediate personal benefit. "If you don't maintain social distancing and partial physical distancing now, the country will impose a total lockdown and you will not be able to go out at all.

"It will really suck for you … and you will have no freedom whatsoever."

The notion of more strictly enforced movement-restriction measures also seemed to be what Trudeau was getting at during his briefing Monday.

"Go home. And stay home," Trudeau said. 

"This is what we all need to be doing, and we're going to make sure this happens, whether by educating people more on the risks, or by enforcing the rules, if that's needed."


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