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Are You Judging Other People's Behavior During the Pandemic?

Practice curiosity, compassion, and acceptance instead.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is compelling most of us to change our habits. The stakes are high because making these changes can be a matter of life or death for way too many of us.

Stay-at-Home Orders have been the biggest change for many people in the U.S. and the world over. Public health experts have recommended this extreme measure because we’re dealing with an explosively contagious virus that can easily overwhelm health care systems.

With no vaccine and no reliable treatment to prevent severe illness or death from COVID-19 (the disease caused by this virus), our best option is to stop the spread. How? By denying this virus the chance to infect the next person, and then the next person, and then the next.

As a result, many countries, regions, and cities have ordered businesses to close and mandated citizens to shelter in place plus practice good hygiene when they must be out and about. Fortunately, these simple measures have proven quite effective. Indeed, the number of deaths drop when we:

  • Stay close to home.
  • Avoid crowds.
  • Wear masks in public.
  • Wash hands for 20 seconds.
  • Greet each other with a wave instead of kisses or handshakes.
  • Give each other a 6-foot-wide berth in store aisles, on sidewalks, and along hiking trails.

Still, people vary widely in how careful and cautious they are. And we may find ourselves looking at others’ actions through a critical lens. It’s easy to judge and stress out when we see people behaving in ways we don’t understand or condone.

For example, say you’re staying home all day, every day, except for the afternoon walk around your local park or your weekly grocery run. When you see street traffic, you may wonder, "Where all those people are going? Why aren’t they following the stay-at-home orders? I’m doing my part. How dare they not do theirs."

Or perhaps you wear your mask inside the grocery store and carefully follow the 6-foot rule. But when you see people wearing masks even while riding bikes or working in their own yards, you may think, "Why are they being so paranoid?" And when your cousin describes how he carefully disinfects his groceries, you shudder at that colossal waste of time. (Experts do not recommend this practice.)

Or maybe you look around your neighborhood and find it maddening that people are staying at home. It’s a free country. Everyone has the right to make a living. Why are people just rolling over and following orders, even when it might mean personal financial ruin?

Whether you tend to dutifully follow the rules, follow your own reasoning, or follow the freedom fighters, you may look askance at those who are doing this differently from you. Unfortunately, whenever we judge someone as “wrong,” we are engaging in a negative activity that creates irritation and ill will. We’re also showing a lack of empathy when we assume we know what’s going on for someone else, without actually considering their point of view. We show a lack of humility when we assume that we know what’s best for everybody. In short, a judgmental attitude puts us in charge of other people’s business while closing our minds and our hearts.

So how can we avoid this embarrassing but common human habit? Here are three tips.

Be curious. It’s impossible to feel critical or judgmental when you adopt a wondering attitude. Your neighbor is gone all day. Is she an essential worker? Is he taking care of an elderly parent? Get curious about why people are protesting against lockdowns. Are they concerned about the economic fallout? Have they been forced out of a job? Are they worried about personal freedom?

Consider the reasons why people disinfect groceries or wear a mask in the yard. Do they have underlying medical conditions that make them vulnerable to serious illness or death? Are their immune systems compromised? Do they tend to worry about their health?

Practice compassion. Everyone’s style is also a reflection of how they are adjusting to and coping with how the pandemic has wrought changes in their lives. Practicing compassion means extending kindness and consideration to everyone, no matter where they’re coming from or how they’re dealing with it.

Be accepting of others. Recognize that for each of us, “doing the right thing” aligns with our values and perceptions of reality, including what and how we think, how we see our world, and how we perceive the dangers. And when different people hold different values and perceptions, of course, “doing the right thing” looks completely different. Here are some examples:

  • If a person tends to trust the experts and looks to their leaders, of course, they will carefully follow the expert advice and governmental guidelines.
  • If a person tends to be a conscientious critical thinker, of course, they’ll gather information from reliable sources, consider their own unique situation, assess the variables, and make independent decisions tailored for themselves and their particular community.
  • If a person tends to mistrust science, experts, or doctors, of course, they’ll think isolation and ramped-up hygiene is stupid or unnecessary.
  • If a person tends to be rebellious or a contrarian thinker, of course, they’ll counter with the opposite: that we should build herd immunity by letting the virus run rampant.
  • And if a person tends to be concerned about governmental overreach violating personal freedoms, of course, they will consider stay-at-home orders a bigger threat than some virus.

When you can see that everyone is simply doing what they believe is “right,” it’s easier to accept everyone’s unique way of being. Acceptance does not mean agreement or even understanding. It simply means that you do you and let them do them.

Fortunately, curiosity, compassion, and acceptance go hand in hand. If you’re curious, it’s easier to be compassionate. If you’re compassionate, it’s easier to be accepting. And if you’re accepting, it’s easier to get curious.

Unfortunately, being judgmental is a tough habit to break, because it makes us feel powerful and superior to others. But whenever you find yourself on your high horse, with practice—lots of practice—you can get into the habit of rising above. You can practice wondering why people do what they do. Practice extending kindness and consideration toward others. Practice accepting that others are different from you.

So whether our friends or neighbors tend to be dutiful or distrusting, vulnerable or skeptical, thinkers, rebels, or libertarians, or hold any combination of these traits, let’s cut each other some slack with curiosity, compassion, and acceptance. These are trying times. And there are still so many unknowns.

We’re still learning about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how it’s transmitted. We’re still trying to get a handle on testing, contact tracing, and treatments for COVID-19 and its complications, including those in children. It’s impossible to know how to balance the benefits of lockdown with the economic costs. Nobody knows how this pandemic will play out.

The models and projections are changing as scientists learn more. Without a crystal ball, we can’t know for sure what’s the best course of action. So simply consider that everyone is doing the best they can, with the support and information they have access to, holding their unique perceptions and values, and dealing with their own particular situations.

Or as Pluto, the miniature Schnauzer boosting spirits on YouTube, advises, “Keep your nose on your own facePut down the spy glasses, OK? Take care of your own business, cuz we’re pretty sure no one is doing that perfectly right now. We all have to find the new normal. So I suggest that we just rise up and be kind…”

More from Deborah L. Davis Ph.D.
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