It’s no secret people have different approaches to health and safety as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic.
While many are heeding public health experts’ advice to stay home and avoid gathering with those outside their households on Thanksgiving, others are still planning large dinner parties that violate pandemic safety guidelines. Some couples are still throwing indoor weddings with hundreds of guests at the same time that others are making difficult decisions to postpone or tie the knot via Zoom.
With these divisions, disagreements have inevitably arisen between friends and relatives who don’t share the same pandemic safety philosophy. The situation is particularly frustrating for those who face criticism for taking extra precautions to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus.
So how should you respond if you’re accused of being “too safe”? Below, therapists and etiquette experts share guidance and tips for navigating these tense conversations.
Resist the urge to get defensive.
“My advice to anyone being accused of being ‘too cautious’ is to resist the impulse to go on the defensive,” said Meg Gitlin, a psychotherapist and the voice behind City Therapist, a therapy insight Instagram account. “Don’t push back when you get questioned, instead go with it.”
She advised pausing, and then saying something like, “You’re right, we are being extra cautious.” You can acknowledge that we’re all in uncharted territory.
“You may say that everyone is just doing the best they can to make decisions that make them feel safe and comfortable,” Gitlin said.
Don’t get into a debate.
“It’s not necessary to get into a debate,” said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life,” and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “Your views will be different from someone else’s, and you can say something like, ‘I would appreciate it if you would respect my position. I’m being very careful, and that’s how my family is navigating the situation.’”
If you’re uncomfortable with the way another person is handling pandemic safety, it’s OK to take a relationship “pause” for a while, she added.
Also, debating the merits of your positions won’t necessarily change anyone’s mind, so brevity is key.
“There is power in silence,” said licensed marriage and family therapist Saniyyah Mayo. “Sometimes trying to explain leaves you frustrated and defeated when a person only wants to prove you wrong or have a rebuttal. This can have a negative impact on your mental health. So in this case it’s better to not say anything at all.”
Understand it’s probably not personal.
“When having these conversations, try to keep in mind that everyone is struggling to define what they feel comfortable with and sometimes aren’t able to express it properly,” Gitlin said.
“One defense mechanism people use when faced with uncertainty is to judge others or put them down,” she added. “If they come at you in a way that’s judgmental or unsupportive, it’s much more likely a projection of their own frustration with the situation than how they actually feel about your decision.”
If your gut reaction is to take someone’s judgment about your cautiousness personally, pause for a minute and try to depersonalize the sentiment in your mind. Remind yourself that you’re likely not the only one on the receiving end of this kind of criticism from them.
Validate the emotions behind their statement.
You don’t have to condone their resistance to COVID-19 safety measures, but you can empathize with the emotions behind such atttiudes.
Craig A. Knippenberg, a therapist and author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success,” recommended saying something like, “I so much appreciate your wanting to be together, we feel the exact same way.”
“You can then validate how this is yet another loss we are suffering due to the virus,” he said. “Talking about your mutual grief can be very helpful. If need be, offer some logic to your decision-making: We have a high-risk family member; we are on the front lines and don’t want to risk spreading it; or, the vaccine is on its way, and we don’t want to blow out now.”
Remember you’re in charge of your choices.
It’s important to remember that you have every right and reason to take precautions to protect your health and safety amid the pandemic. Don’t let someone else’s criticism or judgment deter you from behaving prudently.
Knippenberg advised saying something along the lines of: “I know we all have different views on how to respond to the pandemic but it’s my job to determine what health standards are best for my family, given our particular circumstances.”
Have a healthy conversation if the audience is right.
If you feel inclined to launch into the specific reasons for your caution, determine if this is a useful discussion to have with that person.
“You have to ask yourself why you feel the need to explain [your decisions] in the first place,” Mayo said. “If it is to educate someone then consider your audience. If a person genuinely wants to know your reasoning, this may lead to a healthy conversation. In this case, just tell them your personal reasons for wanting to stay safe.”
“You could also mention how you are following the latest transmission data and the advice of health and government officials,” Knippenberg noted. “You can always end with: ‘Well, I’m just sort of a better-safe-than-sorry kind of person.’”
Offer alternatives for socializing.
If you want to maintain your relationship with this person and continue socializing in a safe way, try to find a solution that works for you.
“Offer some creative alternatives,” Knippenberg suggested. “There will be lots of family Zoom gatherings this year or families who are self-isolating for 10 days prior to getting together. Remember, don’t politicize getting together. It’s just health care.”
Embrace the fact that judgment is inevitable.
“People say, ‘I make my decision, and you can’t judge me for it.’ But the truth is you make your decision, and I can judge you for your decision,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.
“I expect people are going to judge me for my public behaviors,” she added. “That’s OK. That’s who we are as humans. Our behaviors have consequences as adults. We can ask, ‘Is this someone I want in my social circle?’”