You can’t exactly force friends, neighbors or strangers to wear a face covering to slow the spread of coronavirus, but experts prescribe a few approaches to help nudge them in the right direction — and keep yourself safe.
COVID-19 primarily spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing and talking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including by asymptomatic and “pre-symptomatic” individuals.
In a reversal from its earlier guidance, the agency recommended in April that Americans wear cloth face coverings while in public places that make physical distance difficult to maintain. A number of states and businesses also now require mask-wearing in some capacity.
Surveys suggest that many people are complying with such directives: More than two-thirds of respondents to a mid-May HuffPost/YouGov poll, for example, said they either always or mostly wore a face covering while in public and close to other people. Some 83% said they did not view that act as a sign of weakness, and 69% said they saw it as a sign of respectfulness.
But viral incidents of mask resistance have cropped up around the country: A video last month showed a Colorado Costco COST, -0.05% employee bouncing a non-mask-wearing customer whose defense was that he “woke up in a free country.”
“ A video last month showed a Colorado Costco employee bouncing a non-mask wearing customer whose defense was that he ‘woke up in a free country.’ ”
Some protesters have reportedly tried to co-opt disability and medical privacy laws to exempt themselves from wearing masks. A May dispute over a Flint, Mich., Family Dollar DLTR, -1.65% customer not wearing a mask resulted in a security guard’s death.
Meanwhile, President Trump said at a Ford F, +2.80% plant last month that he had declined to wear a mask in public because he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” after wearing one during an earlier part of his tour.
Last month, Mike Pence acknowledged that he made a mistake by visiting patients at the Mayo Clinic without a mask, while health-care workers said management and staff at the Mayo Clinic have serious soul-searching to do.
If you live with a mask nonconformist, or you’ve encountered one at your job or neighborhood grocery store, here are some expert-endorsed strategies for persuading them while protecting your own health and safety:
Setting an example helps establish social norms
“The first thing is to be a role model, and to wear your mask and to wear it properly,” said Zeke Emanuel, a University of Pennsylvania oncologist and bioethicist who helped craft the Affordable Care Act and now advises Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. “It’s important for average people; it’s especially important for celebrities, political leaders, business leaders.” Setting this example helps establish social norms and expectations, he told MarketWatch.
David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral science at the NYU School of Global Public Health, said that each individual who wore a mask was “helping contribute to the new normal.” “Observational learning is extremely powerful, and therefore whether it’s one-on-one or a few people or someone in a leadership position, anybody wearing a mask is strongly helping other people to wear one,” he said.
You can also offer positive reinforcement to people who do wear masks. “How about saying, ‘Thank you for wearing a mask,’ or ‘I appreciate that you’re wearing a mask’?” suggested Gretchen Chapman, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
Cite a rule or policy to make it less personal
If a customer at your workplace is flouting the rules, try deferring to an external authority, said Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who studies scientific skepticism and misinformation. Explain that your workplace mandates mask-wearing for everybody and it’s your job to enforce the rules, she said, “so it’s less about attacking them and their specific decision.”
It can also help to direct the person to resources, like extra masks, she said. Whole Foods AMZN, +1.17%, for example, announced in late April that it would offer free disposable masks to customers.
Chapman said that if a student came to her office hours without a face covering, she would appeal to Carnegie Mellon’s guidance that everyone on campus wear one — that way, the student would be less likely to take it personally.
“Even if that university rule weren’t there, I could say, ‘I have a personal rule that I’ll only meet with people when we’re all wearing masks, so could you put on a mask?’” she said. Publicizing the rules ahead of time isn’t a bad idea, she added.
Avoid the unexpected by not confronting strangers
Bloomfield advised against engaging with strangers who aren’t wearing masks in a store or outside. “If you don’t have any power or authority in a situation, people probably aren’t going to react kindly or openly to being policed by others,” she said. “Direct confrontation with people you don’t know is not a good idea.” (This person might also not be wearing a mask for reasons you don’t know about, like a disability.)
If you do engage with someone, use “I” messages rather than “you” messages, ask questions, study the person’s nonverbal behavior for emotional cues, and try to empathize with their reason for not wearing a mask, Abrams said. Stay calm, firm and neutral, he added, and “be curious about them rather than impose your will on them.”
“Attacking someone, criticizing them for not doing the right thing — that almost never works,” Emanuel added.
Friends and family members will be easier to talk to since you share a personal connection, Bloomfield said. If you know the person, “you could certainly appeal to common values and experiences,” she added. “Perhaps you know people in common who are particularly at risk for contracting the disease.”
Make it easy for friends or employees to comply
It’s important to “make it easy for people to do the right thing,” said Emanuel. “In an ideal world, we would have lots of masks that are free or very cheap,” he said. On an individual level, increasing ease might look like carrying around extra masks to give to people who need them, he said, or sewing or buying masks for your relatives or roommates. Keep masks near the door so they’re easy to grab when your family goes out.
In the workplace, he added, you could “encourage — maybe even demand — that your employer provide suitable masks.” “That’s what it means to operate a safe work environment these days,” Emanuel said.
Establish norms and ground rules ahead of time
You might be able to cultivate norms about mask-wearing in your workplace or organization, Chapman said, including by having a discussion beforehand in which everyone signs on to the idea of wearing a mask.
If you’re meeting up with a friend for a socially distanced coffee, Bloomfield said, set ground rules ahead of time and plan for both of you to wear face coverings. And if you live with someone, lay down rules and expectations for your communal living space. “If you live in the same household, it’s not just your decisions affecting your own personal space — it’s affecting everyone’s space,” she said.
Ask them to compromise or to humor you
If the person isn’t sold on wearing a mask, Bloomfield suggested asking them to just go along with it: “Maybe I’m overreacting, but humor me — I’d rather be safe than sorry.” “You’re asking the person to compromise for your concerns and well-being, even if it’s not something they’re particularly concerned about, because you want to maintain the friendship or the relationship,” she said.
Remember that you turn around and walk away
“To a large extent, you can control what situation you’re in,” Chapman said. “You can leave the store or walk farther away from the person. You could make up whatever excuse you need to walk away from the situation.”
“If you don’t have authority over the space, we can’t really tell people what they can and cannot do,” Bloomfield said. “It’s best to just control your own well-being and what you feel comfortable with, and create the rules for your own spaces as best you can.”
Consider, Chapman added, that there are all sorts of situations not involving COVID-19 in which people have different approaches to risky situations. “You might be somewhat judgmental of people who binge drink or don’t wear seat belts all the time, but you’re not going to be mortal enemies with them because of that — you’re going to try to protect yourself,” she said.