How to talk to people who aren't social distancing — and get them to listen

Shaming won't work. Experts say there's a right way to talk to the reluctant social distancer in your life.
Neighbors helping each other.  A friend drops by for a chat on the doorstep.
Human beings are social creatures, and social distancing comes easier for some than others. Getty Images stock

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By Julie Compton

A friendly neighbor approaches you from across the street, wanting to chat. They’re not wearing a mask. As they get closer, you put up your hand, “We’re in a pandemic!” you say. “We should be social distancing!” You immediately see hurt in their eyes. They may even ignore your warning entirely and come closer.

In the age of COVID-19, following social distancing guidelines isn’t merely important — it’s life saving. But some people may not seem to get it. What can you say to them to change their behavior while keeping the peace?

Here’s the right way to talk to people about social distancing and actually get them to listen, according to experts.

Understand the emotional needs of the non-distancer

Human beings are social creatures, and social distancing comes easier for some than others. Before judging or criticizing the non-distancer in your life, try to see things from their perspective, says Niro Feliciano, a cognitive psychotherapist and author of the podcast “Coping With The New Normal of COVID-19.” Instead of assuming someone is ignorant, understand they might be lonely, or have some other emotional need driving their behavior. For many people, especially the elderly, yearning for companionship can override the fear of getting sick, even if they are high risk. For instance, despite grave warnings from health officials, she says many of her clients are dealing with grandparents popping up unexpectedly on their doorsteps, wanting to see their grandkids.

“My parents are actually both physicians, they're both high risk, they have comorbidities for this illness,” says Feliciano. “So, what [we said] is you come over, we meet you outside, we're all wearing masks, we're six feet apart, but we can see each other. And then also we make it a point to FaceTime them almost every day so they can see the kids and not feel so alone.”

Once you understand their emotional needs, Feliciano says, it’s much easier to figure out what to say to them. “What are they asking for and how can we meet that in a safe way where we are still social distancing, but we're still finding ways to connect better that are meaningful specifically to that person?” she says.

Have a script

If a non-distancer is driving you mad, remain calm, says Donald Cole, a marriage counselor and clinical director at The Gottman Institute. He says to begin the conversation with what he calls a “gentle start up.” These types of statements begin with “I” and focus on how you feel, rather than the “bad” behavior of the non-distancer. A good example would be: “Hey, I’m worried about getting you sick, can we please stand 6 feet apart?” Having a script of what you plan to say to people before they approach you is a great way to prevent awkwardness and hurt feelings, he says.

Even when we’re gentle, some people may still feel stung, says Cole. But it’s not helpful to worry too much about hurting people’s feelings, he says.

“Repair is always possible,” he says. “The reality is, most people in most relationships that have any duration, have somewhere along the line gotten their feelings hurt within that relationship. It's not fatal, we recover.”

Draw a hard line if necessary

Those we share our homes with, such as roommates and significant others, who refuse to socially distance or follow guidelines can be especially infuriating since they risk bringing the virus into our homes. But there are ways to deal with them, too. Again, you want to avoid lecturing them about their “bad” behavior, and communicate your feelings instead using “I” and “we” statements, say both Cole and Feliciano. For example, instead of telling them “You should be washing your hands when you come inside,” say something like: “I’m afraid of getting sick, can we both please make it a rule to wash our hands when we come inside?”

If your words are still falling on deaf ears, it’s time to draw a hard line between them and you, says Feliciano.

Here, you still want to use “I” language, she says — avoid focusing on their behavior as the problem. Instead, tell them you are going to distance yourself from them to keep yourself safe. Spend time in separate rooms, sleep in different beds, if possible, she says. But this should be a last resort. “Sometimes they need that hard line — that boundary in the relationship to help them understand how serious and important it is to their partner, and also maybe even give them a window into the fear or anxiety that they might be creating in their partner,” she says.

Teenagers: Are they just being difficult?

Teenagers may also show resistance to staying at home, says Feliciano. If your teen isn’t listening, don’t assume they are just being difficult. Your teen is at a developmental stage where they need to build a sense of independence from home, and are probably going through a tough time.

As with adults, you’ll want to deal with teenagers using “I” statements — focusing on your feelings rather than their “bad” behavior. Your teen may not fear getting sick, but they probably wouldn’t be happy if they got a family member — particularly a parent or a grandparent — ill, she says. Start the conversation with concern for your health and the health of other family members, she says. “This is a very unnatural situation for them, both physically and psychologically, so we want to find ways that they can connect and support that while at the same time minimizing risk and having them understand why that behavior, even though it doesn't [potentially] affect them, is still risky to the family and also to to the community at large,” she says.

Some parents are allowing their teens to see one close friend on a regular basis, she says. While it’s not ideal, she says it does allow them to maintain a friendship while keeping their social interactions to a minimum. “You want to talk to them about ‘How can we go about this? How can we figure out how you can connect with your friends in a way that's safe for our whole family?’ I've seen teenagers meet in a parking lot. They sit in the trunks of their car. They bring food and they don't share food, but there are ways to connect.”

Don’t try to be the social distancing police

If non-distancers are driving you crazy, it’s important to understand that you have little control over their behavior, says Cole. Draw a boundary around yourself where you can. Where you can’t, find ways to relax, whether it’s exercise or listening to music. “In any time of heightened stress, try to be mindful of your own reactivity, your own anxiety levels and take responsibility for those and try to manage them with whatever tools you like to use,” he says.