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Navigating Social Interaction in a World With COVID-19

The pros and cons of asking friends to socialize.

Gustavo Fring/Pexels
Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Life as we know it has changed. This past weekend, I attended a socially distant cookout complete with masked grilling, BYOB, plastic-wrapped utensils, and chairs spread around the yard. Coronavirus cases are climbing in many parts of the United States. Most people I know are taking more risks than they have in the last couple of months, yet everyone I talk to is on a different page. Some are seeing family, some are seeing neighbors, others are seeing anyone who will see them. Still others have hardly left their houses since March and aren’t seeing people outside of their immediate family.

Now that summer is in full swing, people are testing the waters to find out if their friends are willing to see them and with what precautions. This article is about the social risks and benefits of seeing friends. My expertise is in communication. I am not an infectious disease expert. Other articles discuss the health and safety concerns of seeing friends.

According to CNBC, new standards for social etiquette are being set in real time and range from requiring friends to get a COVID-19 test before seeing them, taking party guests’ temperatures, or wearing masks while hanging out. When new social rules are made before our eyes, they can be hard to navigate.

Below, I explain why conversations to determine how we will hang out with friends are difficult to have, what you should keep in mind if you are planning to hang out with friends, and what you should do if you and your friends are not on the same page when it comes to seeing one another in the new social world in which we live.

Why are conversations about gathering with friends during social distancing orders difficult to have?

These conversations are difficult in part because they are directly tied to our values. Some people are upholding strict precautions including not seeing friends at all, seeing them only outdoors and six feet apart while wearing masks, or seeing only certain people while avoiding all others. On the other end of the spectrum, people have resumed something close to pre-corona life, holding and attending crowded social events with no regard for social distancing or sanitation. Others fall somewhere in between. Our choices about the precautions we take and the way we see others reveal our values in regard to health, safety, and privilege.

A mismatch in values can challenge a friendship. Friendships are built on similarities in backgrounds, interests, and values. When people perceive a mismatch in values, they may question the fit of the friendship. Friends may judge one another for having less stringent values when it comes to coronavirus safety or for being too strict or unreasonable in their safety precautions. Friends may feel the need to explain their decisions for being strict or less strict which could involve disclosures they did not want to make about hidden health concerns.

How should people discuss seeing others during a time when exposure to friends/family should be limited?

Only do what you are comfortable with and recognize that those who are good friends will understand and respect your decisions. That said, there is a cost to continuing to avoid or limit exposure to your social network.

Friends who are spending time together are maintaining and growing their relationship while friends who are opting out are missing out. They may be doing the “right” and “responsible” thing, but they are losing out on something else. Take, for example, a large group of friends who all have kids the same age/grade in school. Those who are willing to hang out have just started up their in-person monthly trivia game again. They are learning about one another, spending quality time, and deepening their relationships. One couple has chosen not to participate due to coronavirus concerns. This couple will be included again in the future but conventional wisdom warns that those who do not show up stop getting asked to attend over time.

Social network support is critically important during stressful and uncertain times such as the ones we are living in. If you are continuing to stay home and limit your exposure, be sure to keep up the virtual chats and game nights with friends to keep your sense of belonging and support intact.

What if my desire to see others differs from the people in my social network?

Find friends who are on your page and spend time with them. For those who are not, be willing to be the only person wearing a mask at a gathering or wear a mask to make a friend who is wearing one feel more comfortable. A good rule of thumb is to adopt the standards of the most health-conscious or strict person in the group. If one person wants to stay six feet away from others and wear a mask, it will be easier for that person to uphold their guidelines and they will feel respected if everyone at the gathering does the same. These types of behaviors will likely strengthen a friendship as people tend to appreciate when others are willing to make sacrifices for them.

My advice for navigating unknown boundaries? If you’ve set up a friend hang, err on the side of caution: Start by wearing a mask when entering another person’s space. If the default is wearing the mask, you’ll be all set if your friend turns up wearing a mask as well. You can then have a conversation about your comfort levels. If you show up sans mask and they are wearing one, you risk making them uncomfortable and put them at risk.


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