I personally wish we had a different national leader at this moment, while I think my state’s governor is doing a great job. But whatever the leadership at the top, the police, the politicians, even the national guard cannot be everywhere at once during this virulent pandemic. The truth is we will never have government action to match what was done in South Korea. If you’re waiting for that white horse you will have a long wait. So it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to talk to friends, neighbors, and loved ones, and when necessary to call them out on behavior that puts others at risk.
“That’s not the way to cough, you should cough into your elbow.”
“Wash your hands before you do that.”
“You aren’t six feet apart. Please separate yourselves.”
“We can make do with what we have. I don’t want you to go to the store when it’s crowded.”
To most of our ears those statements may sound too imposing, or even rude. But isn’t putting someone’s life in danger rude? Does our respect for American individualism extend to allowing others to put us in danger? If not, we need to speak up.
Looking around for advice on how to do it, I considered following the principle of Non-Violent Communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg, you could rewrite all of the above to be “I” statements, which can help others hear things somewhat more, but in practice, if I said to a stranger, “I’m uncomfortable with you coughing like that. Could you please cough into your elbow?” Well, I have tried that kind of thing, and if you tell a stranger how you feel, they just look terrified and confused, especially if the stranger is a man and you are a woman. “Oh my God! A woman is telling me about her feelings. Ahhhh!”
In an article called “5 Steps to Fearless Confrontation” Kathy Caprino of Forbes Magazine describes some of the challenges on both sides of a confrontation. For the recipient of the negative feedback, those challenges include painful memories of past confrontations, what I’d call getting triggered, and also the pain of knowing that you have disappointed someone. For the confronter, the challenges include mastering one’s emotions when one feels fearful or upset, and for women especially the most dreaded outcome: being seen as mean.
Maybe for me it’s time for me to embrace the cranky old lady archetype. It seems to have taken my local police department about a week to get up to speed in their role in this, and in one glaring absence, at our local farmer’s market, you can bet they received a phone call from me. But in a thornier, more personally painful instance, I am still suffering from the disapproval of two people very close to me for calling one of them out on behavior that increased the risk posed to others. I don’t say in my opinion it posed a risk, I say it did pose a risk. The CDC says so. Science says so. Life is not a media hoax. Viruses can penetrate attitude or personal ideas of invincibility. But being right didn’t make the confrontation go well. I’d say we all failed in all of the ways mentioned. I did not manage my emotions particularly well. I could not avoid these people thinking I am mean, and as far as I can tell, they both took a trip to triggered-ville and may now be suffering from a deeper pain of knowing that they disappointed me.
We’re talking about big stuff here. Not only life and death, but about our deeply held definitions of love. If you define love as never ever doing or saying anything that causes someone else to be upset, then you shouldn’t say a thing. But in general, I want more truth and intimacy in these particular relationships, and less superficial, “everything is fine” kind of conversations. Maybe I am in part using this horrible situation to push that longstanding agenda. Maybe the others were using this situation to assert what they feel is their longstanding authority to shut me up.
These things run deep.
Even in confrontations with strangers, these familial personal issues can arise. For example, if you are a woman of a certain age, anyone you ask to social distance may hear their mother’s voice. Or that poor social distancer may remind you of an ex and unconsciously, underneath your fear of the virus, you may be thinking “isn’t that just like him. So selfish!”
Another meme intended to help people deal with the psychological challenges of the pandemic included two lists: things you can control and things you can’t. This is always important to sort out, that is if you want to keep your sanity. And in this meme, “whether other people observe social distancing” was most definitely on the list of things one cannot control. And I agree. But whether or not I choose to challenge those people or confront them with my opinion, that is up to me. But there are costs, as I am seeing all too painfully.
I'd say I model my willingness for confrontation more on rally the troops attitudes of eras gone by, rather than the chillax culture of today. It makes me out of step in a way, but I will strive to march to my own drummer. Because when I look back on this time I want to be able to say I did everything I could to affect a safe environment for myself, my family, my neighbors, and my community. And what needs doing most of all at this moment by the average person is social distancing.
The most immediate, tangible way to help is to socially distance yourself and to encourage others to do so.
But for many, the right thing may be to not confront these people. Even in my case, I am on rocky shores at the moment, and keeping my emotional stability is difficult. After the call to the police, I was upset, and debated whether it had been worth it. In the case of the personal situation, the stakes were so high, I'm glad I spoke up, even as I remain in the dog house. (That's OK. I love dogs.)
If You're Gonna Do It, How Should You Do It?
I appreciate the lists of how to succeed at confrontation. Stay calm, choose the right moment,etc. But frankly there’s no “right” way. To suggest that there is implies that human beings take negative feedback well. They don’t. Nobody wants to hear that their behavior is out of line. Most of the time, we don't tell them, but dance around other people’s feelings not only for their sake, but for ours. We don’t want to deal with their being upset with us. Right now, we shouldn’t prioritize in that way.
If you see someone not observing social distancing, unless you feel the person is a physical threat to you, or speaking up will harm you in some other significant way, say something.
If a shit-storm ensues, don’t apologize, and don't repeat yourself. Just walk away and take care of yourself. And that includes not trying to make them see that you were right, and not continuing the fight in your head and justifying yourself. You did what you thought was right. ‘Nuff said.
Worst case scenario that person now hates your guts. What then? Live with being disliked if that’s the result. The negative reactions may be in your face, but keep in mind there are countless other positive outcomes you may not be able to see directly. You may even have saved a life.
In the end, the real reward for doing what you believe is right is not others’ reaction to you, nor any positive or negative byproducts in your relationships, nor even the outcome of succeeding at your goal. It’s about your relationship with yourself and your own values. It is the knowledge within yourself that you have done what you believed to be the right thing. And there is growth there. And benefit.
Many people are finding that this horribly challenging time has some real silver linings. The birds are singing more. The skies are more clear. And here’s another one: we have an opportunity to examine our values and bring ourselves more honestly and bravely into our relationships with one another. It is because the stakes are so high that we may find ourselves willing to speak up in situations where previously we'd have remained quiet for the sake of not rocking any boats. For some, this is good news.
And as far as maintaining your own social distance, maybe put away some old ideas of trying not to take up too much space. Think of yourself and the people around you as beautiful flowers. After all, every flower needs room to bloom.