Not everyone wants to rush to reopened restaurants and beaches during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but they may be at odds with opinions from friends and family.
Leaving the house and socializing has become a divisive issue, especially as states are relaxing COVID-19 restrictions and more and more people are leaving their homes to connect with others.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, recently told a group of Harvard panelists, “We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t told Americans to stay home, but the agency does offer about a dozen risk factors to consider before going out.
As people figure out what’s best for them, they’re also forced to have some uncomfortable conversations.
It’s vital to remember the pandemic will end someday and it’s important to make sure relationships remain intact, etiquette expert Elaine Swann told USA TODAY.
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“People are so sensitive right now about COVID and their beliefs,” she said. “We’re trying to find these ways to tell people what they’re doing wrong and the choices they’re not making correctly and why they’re not invited and that’s just not the type of conversation we should engage in.”
There is a grief associated with not being able to engage with friends and family during the pandemic, psychologist Dr. Vaile Wright said. It’s OK to feel that loss, she said.
“The challenge is to not second-guess ourselves,” she said. “Once we made whatever that risk-benefit analysis is for us and our families about what feels safe and OK for us, then we need to just be OK with that decision and kind of move forward.”
‘I statements’ vs. ‘you statements’
It’s possible to effectively say no and still alienate relationships, said Wright, senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. It’s impossible to control how someone reacts to being turned down, she said.
“You don’t want to attack, name-call or blame,” she said. “You want to stay away from what we refer to as ‘you statements.’ Saying something like, ‘You aren’t following the rules, therefore I can’t come over to Thanksgiving,’ is going to make the other person defensive and you’re not going to be as effective.”
She added, “Instead you want to use what we call ‘I statements’ and express your feelings. It would look more like, ‘I feel uncomfortable bringing my family around this year, so we’re going to have to say no to Thanksgiving.’”
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Swann recommended saying no without a “COVID reason.” Adding in the “COVID reason,” instead of just saying no, “makes the other person feel as though they’re not making a good, sound decision,” she said.
“The best way to turn down those sorts of invitations and keep our friendships going is to not put the other person down during the decline of the invite,” said Swann, founder of the Swann School of Protocol. “What I mean by that is to not question their own judgment.”
Conversations with family members
People tend to lack restraint when it comes to dealing with family members, Swann said. Saying no respectfully is still important. Still, a family member can be given alternatives. If going out to a restaurant isn’t a possibility, a backyard visit might be.
“Decline with an alternative,” Swann said.
It’s possible for things to become tense. Anticipating what a negative reaction might look like can help, Wright said. Going into the conversation with a clear mindset helps, too. Don’t go into a conversation where you might have to decline a family member if you’ve already had a tough day.
The things most people are most worried about are anger, disappointment and a guilt trip, Wright added. Coming up with answers to each of those emotions (something like, “I understand you’re angry, but I need to do what’s right for my family”) can ease the conversation, according to Wright.
Also, have a plan to get off the phone or Zoom call. After the conversation, it’s important to have coping mechanisms. Take a walk, speak with a supportive friend – do something that’ll help ease the situation personally, Wright said.
“The reality is, they could get angry and there’s not much you can do about that,” Wright said. “The worst thing you can do would be to react in a similar manner and/or change your mind because somebody’s guilt-tripped you into going against what you have decided is right for you and your family.”
Weddings, birthdays, holiday dinners
When having an event like a wedding or a birthday, sometimes it’ll be necessary to tell loved ones they aren’t invited. The same might go for holiday gatherings and dinners.
Expressing excitement at the opportunity for future events where everyone is invited is a good way to help those left out feel better, Swann said.
“You pivot that conversation and really focus on that next time you can get together,” Swann said.
Virtual invites may also help. Ask loved ones to join via Zoom, and dress for the occasion – even take a screenshot of the video conference to commemorate the event, Swann suggested.
“You tell them, ‘Hey, we’re keeping the wedding really small, but I still want you to be a part of it and here are all the different things I want you to do so you can be a part of it,” Swann said.
‘Drinks are on me’ when friends invite you out
It’s possible to still be part of an event after declining to be there in person.
First, find out what the situation is when someone issues an invite, Swann said. Will social distancing be practiced? Is everyone going to wear a mask? Swann said a “kind gesture towards the host” can go a long way to softening the blow of declining to show up in person.
Maybe send a gift.
“You can send over something using DoorDash or Postmates,” Swann said. “Maybe it’s a bottle of wine or cheese. Or the other thing you can do is just send them money. That’s the one thing no one’s going to turn down. You can say, ‘Hey, drinks are on me.’”
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It’s important to approach every situation with empathy, Wright said.