How to Talk to Loved Ones Who Won't Take Social Distancing Seriously, According to Experts

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As the number of people infected with the highly contagious novel Coronavirus increases, health experts around the world have recommended the public take social distancing measures to limit its spread and protect those most vulnerable. As a result, much of the country—and much of the world—has implemented lockdown orders to limit gatherings of more than a few people, shut down eat-in restaurants and bars, and closed all non-essential businesses. If you don’t have to go outside right now, experts say it’s integral that you stay inside and limit your in-person interactions.

It’s unclear how long these lockdown measures will be in place, but experts say they’re integral to slowing the spread of the virus and unburdening healthcare systems that are already at capacity. By isolating ourselves in our homes, the virus—which is highly contagious and has already resulted in nearly a million confirmed cases around the world—runs out of viable hosts. The spread levels out to manageable levels, and hospitals are more able to treat sicker patients who come in needing help.

"Social distancing really works,” Robert Citronberg, M.D., director of infectious disease at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, says of these measures. “For the most part, you need to be within six feet of the virus to catch it from someone. That’s where the magic number of staying six feet apart comes from. Social distancing starts to work right away, but it can take two weeks or more to show it’s positive effect. The better we practice it, the less time we will have to do it for. But it’s not quick, it could easily be another 8-12 weeks based on the prevalence of the virus.”

However, for social distancing to really make a dent in the amount of cases arising, everyone needs to be adhering to it—not just some. And yet, despite this, it seems only some people are taking this virus seriously. Videos of people out in large groups to celebrate spring break or hang out in the park have circulated around the internet, peppered with comments from people such as, “If I get Coronavirus, I get Coronavirus. It’s not going to stop me from partying and having a good time."

Le sigh.

Many will recover from this virus just fine. But the older populations, and those with weakened immune systems may not be so lucky. "For about 80 percent of us, it is just like the flu. But for the other 20 percent, it can be a life-threatening infection,” Dr. Citronberg says. “The biggest concern is not so much the mortality rate but the raw numbers. It’s possible that 100 million Americans could become infected. That would result in about one million deaths and hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations.” This is why it’s so important to limit the spread—if not for your own health, then for your parents’ health, or someone else’s grandparents’ health.

If you’re dealing with a family member or a friend who isn’t taking the pandemic seriously, or is not adhering to social distancing guidelines (and putting themselves and the greater public health at risk), you might be wondering how to best go about speaking to them about it. There’s a fine line to walk between making a person feel attached and calmly explaining that things just can’t be normal right now for the greater good. Some simply just don’t want to change their ways in the face of mass uncertainty and social upheaval. 

But, for the safety of the world, we must. Here’s what experts had to say about how to approach speaking to someone who isn’t taking the pandemic seriously.

Older Family Members and Parents

 Most millennials have found themselves in a situation where it feels like the roles have reversed. Suddenly, we’re the ones telling our parents not to go out, and to be as careful as possible. After all, most of our parents are over 60, a vulnerable age group. Many also have underlying conditions that weaken them even more to the deadly effects of the virus.

“Those at the highest risk of getting very sick are older people,” Dr. Citronberg explains. “Also those with chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, and immunosuppression are also at risk. Although young, healthy people are at much lower risk of getting sick, they still can become severely ill. The single most important thing at-risk people can do is stay home. The virus cannot come into your home unless someone brings it there. So minimizing contact with other people is key.”

Talking to someone like a parental figure, or even an older family member, can be tough, especially if the bottom line of the conversation is you asking them to change their behavior. However, according to Anna Yam, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist from Bloom Psychology in California, it’s not impossible. 

What to Remember

“Most of us tend to be attached to our views,” Dr. Yam tells Byrdie. “The key to a productive conversation intended to change the views and behaviors of someone else is respect. Respect in this context means truly seeing the other person as rational and well-intentioned, even when you disagree with their views or behaviors.” She recommends trying to understand what’s motivating their choice to not practice social distancing, or consider the virus a serious public health issue. “With non-adherence to social distancing, you might guess that the underlying feeling is fear, or the desire not to be afraid,” she explains. “It feels considerably better to hold the belief that the pandemic is ‘just the flu’ than the belief that it's an existential threat, for example.”

How to Start

A good way to begin a conversation with them would be to talk about how they’re feeling about the pandemic and all the stressors that come with it. “Listening in this way communicates respect and reinforces the connection you already have with them. This connection will help smooth the way for an open conversation about your concerns,” she says. “Here’s how this looks in practice: ‘I know how important it is for you to live life normally, it's scary to make so many changes. As someone who loves you, I'm worried that you will get sick. Will you please stay home/wash your hands/get groceries delivered, to help me worry less?’”

Similarly, therapist Lauren Cook, MMFT, suggests you explain why you’re worried. “You can genuinely share your concerns. You could say, ‘Grandma, I would honestly be so upset if something happened to you. For my own peace of mind, would you consider staying inside so that we can help keep you safe? It would mean so much to me,’” she says. “Sharing statements such as these give emotional buy-in that comes beyond logical reasoning. When we love and care about our family members, we want to make them happy. If our older relatives know how much we value them and how much we want them in our lives, they're more likely to make some sacrifices in order to meet those wishes.”

Prepare for Rejection

However, Dr. Yam cautions that they may not answer like you hope they will. “Be prepared for them to say ‘no’ and to respect that decision. Pressuring and nagging is generally not effective, because it causes the other party to defend their beliefs and double-down on their behaviors. When the other person cares about you, they will at least entertain ways to alleviate your concerns, [so] consider that progress.”

Friends and Peers

Younger people may not be in as much danger of dying from the virus, but they are in danger of getting severely ill and needing ICU treatment—something that will only burden the already overextended healthcare system in this country even more. In countries like France and the U.S. where we have data, over half of patients reported to be in the ICU with the virus are under the age of 60, proof that this isn’t just a virus that infects older generations. “Young people can get very sick from the virus,” Dr. Citronberg confirms. “[However], even if they don’t get sick, they can spread the virus to their parents or grandparents who could get very sick or even die.” 

Still, we see reports of young people gathering in large groups, seemingly unfazed by the prospect of the virus. Social distancing needs their participation to work too, however—so how do you talk to someone your own age who doesn’t want to change their life?

Get Consent

Dr. Yam reiterates that making the other party feel respected is key. “It’s important to ask for consent to have a conversation about social distancing, or similar matters. A person who willingly gives consent is more likely to be open to what you have to say, and less likely to be resistant,” she says. “Having started from a respectful frame of mind and secured consent to have the conversation, you are on good footing to share your concerns and ask for behavioral change. Be candid, vulnerable and direct. Tell the other person that you are worried about them, and ask them to make specific changes in their behavior.” Cook agrees, explaining you’re likely to get a better response from the person you want to talk to if you listen to them first. 

Don't Lecture

“If the person feels like they are going to be lectured or scolded, it's much more likely that they're going to shut down and not be able to hear your concerns. When you do start to share, come from a place of curiosity rather than frustration or fear. You can say, ‘That's interesting to me. Tell me more about why you feel this way?’ rather than, ‘Why won't you pay attention to what we're being told to do,’” she says. “When you come from a stance of curiosity, you can help the other person respond more openly while gently challenging their ideas. For example, you could say, ‘Could it be possible that it might be helpful to stay inside?’ (And not with a sarcastic tone!) This can help the person unintentionally start to make the case for why they should stay inside — without even realizing it!”

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that social distancing is a public health issue, and we must practice it for the greater good, not just ourselves. Appealing to loved ones who may not be adhering to the guidelines with this thought process can not only help them begin to understand its importance—it can also save lives.

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