Friendship or isolation: The cost of social distancing

This article has been excerpted and published in New Strait Times and SAYS.

Stay at home, wash your hands, and don’t touch your face. The trifecta to public health official’s 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 is getting extended, 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 to many. Because of that, not everyone is actually practising social distancing measures.

I watched in mild disbelief a few weeks ago as a friend posted a video of a group gathering of about 10 people at an eatery with no restriction of social distancing implied. 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 high-stress 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 into Twitter and you can find first-person accounts sharing stories of 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. During our conversation, a week had passed since her friend last spoke to my friend.

In an interview with Miriam Kirmayer, a Montreal-based psychologist and friendship researcher, she 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 You’re doing this wrong remark 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 that “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 coincides 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.

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 cavalier attitudes 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 turning chores fun can go a long way. Simple things like sharing recipes, 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.

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