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IU psychology faculty offer tips on having difficult COVID-19 conversations

Sep 23, 2020
Students on the IU Bloomington campus
When it comes to safety, we’re all in this together – even though that may create some awkward situations between friends, roommates and others.Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

When it comes to being safe on campus in the COVID-19 era, we’re all in this together – but that’s not to say this is always easy.

A few weeks into the semester, chances are you have seen some questionable behavior or a situation that violates guidelines. Or perhaps you’ve just been involved in an uncomfortable pandemic-related discussion.

How might you handle these situations or conversations? We asked three IU faculty members in psychology – Catherine Borshuk from IU South Bend, Hannah Lee from IU Northwest and Kevin Rand from IUPUI – for some guidance.

Let’s all continue to stay safe, but let’s try to stay friendly, too.

Q: How do you handle safety discussions with a roommate if you lean more toward following safety protocols than he or she does? You’re going to be together for an extended period so you don’t want to ruin the relationship, but you want to comply with the rules.

Hannah Lee: I encourage you to plan a conversation rather than bringing it up impulsively. Think about what you want to say first. Perhaps you’ll want to write it down. One golden rule for a difficult conversation is avoiding “You … ” statements and starting a sentence with “I.” By focusing on your experience – how you feel, how your roommate’s behavior impacts you – rather than pointing out his or her problematic behavior, defensiveness can be reduced.

Compare “you didn’t wash your hands when coming back from shopping” with “I was really scared when I noticed you didn’t wash your hands … .” Also, in this way, you can share your honest fears or anxiety about the pandemic, which can create common ground between you and your roommate.

Kevin Rand: Look at it as an ongoing series of conversations, rather than a one-time intervention where you’re trying to change behaviors right away. What doesn’t work is an authoritarian conversation, as that produces almost the opposite reaction.

We’re all teenagers in our head – as soon as someone tells us to do something, we want to do the opposite. If you look at it as “I want to get to know you better,” playing the long game, that’s more likely to effect behavior change.

Q: Should you feel empowered to approach a stranger on campus who isn’t wearing a mask? If so, is there any way to do so without creating a confrontation? Is doing nothing – while perhaps the easiest course of action – neglecting the greater good? Is doing nothing at that moment but alerting an authority figure (IUPD, a professor) akin to “ratting out” someone and uncool?

Catherine Borshuk: Depends on the circumstances. If someone’s mask is around their neck, chances are they forgot to pull it back up. If you’re within 6 feet of them, you might make a smiling gesture of pulling up the mask. If they do, signal your thanks. If they don’t, walk away. The goal is to keep yourself safe.

On the other hand, if someone is keen on demonstrating their noncompliance with campus safety protocols, they will take the opportunity to “make a stand” if you ask them to put on a mask, especially if you do it in a serious or cross manner, and a conflict could ensue. If someone or a group seems intent on publicly violating, say, the mask mandate because they want to demonstrate their individual feelings on the matter, I’d leave that to the authorities.

Lee: You want to do it politely and pleasantly. To do so, recall what you learned in an introductory psychology course: When it comes to others’ behavior, especially negative ones, people tend to attribute internal and dispositional characteristics of the person rather than situational factors.

For example, when people see a speeding car passing their own car, a common reaction is perceiving the driver to be a “moron,” “stupid” or “reckless” (dispositional attribution) rather than thinking the person is in some emergent situation causing the driving behavior (situational attribution). This attribution error is known to be more common in Western society.

Applying this when people see someone not wearing a mask in a public space, their immediate reaction is likely perceiving the entire person as bad, without considering a circumstantial reason – for example, that the person simply forgot to put on the mask in their backpack! When you believe someone to be a bad person, you are alert, anxious and even angry. In this state, your approach may not come out nicely.

Q: How do you approach a gathering with friends/colleagues who aren’t following protocols? You want to be social, yet safe.

Borshuk: Prevention matters here. When planning to attend, ask questions about safety protocols. Don’t feel afraid to be blunt and say straight out, “I won’t go if there’s no physical distancing and people aren’t wearing masks.” Use the word “safe” a lot when sending that message – safety is a universal goal. Make safety-seeking the norm, and then nobody will be surprised if you decide to leave early if protocols aren’t followed.

Rand: As for reporting people – is it “ratting out”? Yeah, but the greater good is that we’re trying to keep people healthy and alive. If you saw someone standing on the ledge of a building, you’d alert the authorities. With other employees, we have signed an agreement that we will follow those guidelines. In a classroom, students are agreeing to abide by this code of conduct.

Q: An old friend has views about the pandemic that are completely opposite from yours, and he or she isn’t shy about sharing them. You’d rather preserve the friendship than have a debate. How do you change the subject?

Borshuk: Be prepared to announce in a caring way that since you disagree, you’ll physically hang out with the friend in the future when we’re not in such peril, and in the meantime your relationship will have to be virtual. And be clear that you’re not in the mood to debate the science of the pandemic. If you want to preserve your friendship, don’t be accusatory or name-call.

Rand: I favor being honest: “I don’t think this is a good topic for us to talk about. I want to maintain my friendship with you, but I think we have differing views on this.” You’re talking about the process rather than the content and being genuine. You don’t have to be sly about changing the subject. You can be upfront and say, “I just don’t want to have this conversation. I value our relationship too much to have this get in the way.”

Q: How do individuals’ home cultures and environments affect their views on safety, and how can others be respectful of that even if those views don’t align with their own?

Lee: One reason for the individual differences in following the public guidelines can be found by understanding the culture the person grew up. Culture can be considered in different levels: family culture, community culture, age, generation-related, Eastern vs. Western.

Your culture influences on how you perceive, feel, and behave – sometimes in profound ways. For example, some may grow up in an environment that considers the public health issues more seriously and prioritizes following those guidelines over individual freedom. This difference can lead to different decisions on everyday behaviors – like wearing a mask or not.

The principle of how to talk is similar when you plan to talk to your roommate. Just keep in mind that people tend to perceive a different behavior from theirs to be wrong and moralize the person’s decision of the behavior. It is important that you are aware of this tendency, explore your own biases and put in an effort to change them.

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