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How Do You Deal With A Friend Who Is Oblivious To Social Distancing?

Published: May 3, 2020 | Last Updated: February 17, 2023 By | 2 Replies Continue Reading
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As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, scientists are aggressively searching for effective medications and vaccines to treat and prevent the disease. At the same time, there is growing controversy about accepting “stay-at-home” and “social distancing” recommendations being put into place by various levels of government. 

This has spurred protests at state capitals, political debates about whether jobs and the economy or health should take precedence; and even confrontations in supermarkets between shoppers who wear masks and those who don’t.

It also can drive a wedge between close friends or family members who have very different ideas about how to behave in a pandemic.

What is social distancing?

“Social distancing” is the term used for a behavioral (as opposed to medical) approach to stop the spread of the disease until it can be treated and prevented. Public officials and academics (including epidemiologists) have recommended a strategy that has been used for centuries and during other epidemics. 

In New York, where I live and one of the epicenters of the virus, the slow but steady “flattening of the curve” has been attributed to the way most citizens have responded: by staying at home and maintaining social distance.

What’s the difference between social distancing, quarantine and isolation?

Social distancing isn’t the only way to limit or avoid close contact with other people in order to halt the spread of disease. According to the Mayo Clinic:

  • The term “quarantine” refers to separating people and limiting the movement of those who may have been exposed to the illness to see if they become ill. (Most people quarantine for 14 days.)
  • The term “isolation” refers to separating people who have been diagnosed with the disease from others to keep the disease from spreading.

Is social distancing the same as physical distancing?


Scientists believe that the virus spreads when an infected individual coughs, sneezes, or talks, launching droplets from their mouth or nose into the air or on surfaces, which land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. Hence, staying away from other people can help “flatten the curve.” 

But a recent article in the journal Health Affairs makes the observation that there is a distinction between physical and social proximity—and between the terms physical distancing and social distancing. 

Just because it is prudent to stay at least two arm’s length away from our friends, neighbors, colleagues or other acquaintances doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t maintain social connections with them. (Note: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also encourages frequent handwashing and advises people to wear masks in public to avoid the spread of the virus.)

The authors of the Health Affairs article lament that, on its face, the term “social distancing” lumps together all categories of social interaction (including such things, for example, as staying in touch by phone or over the internet). It gives the unintentional message that social distancing includes non-physical distancing. 

It goes on to say that this language inadvertently reinforces the idea that these “public health directives encourage both physical and social separation, which is clearly not their aim.” 

Why do some friends fail to observe physical distancing rules?

Like politics, religion, and just about every other dimension of life you can think of, different people see things differently. The same goes for public health recommendations and here are some reasons why:

  • Some people are more vulnerable than others based on their health history or status. They may have underlying medical conditions that would make the consequences of catching the virus more serious. All things being equal, older people, whose immune systems aren’t as robust, have reason to feel more vulnerable than younger people. People who consider themselves younger or relatively healthy may not realize that failing to remain physically distant puts themselves as well as others at risk. 
  • People live in different environments and it seems that as population density increases, so does the risk of contracting the virus. So, for example, those who live in large cities (like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Miami or Los Angeles) may be more cautious than those who live in small towns.
  • Some people are deniers. The pandemic is frightening to most of us and one style of coping with a threat of this magnitude is to deny the gravity of a situation entirely. These deniers may, in fact, see others as over-reacting.
  • Everyone has a different tolerance for risk. Some people don’t worry about getting sick; others may be overly cautious and/or unwilling to take even minimal risks.
  • Some people tend to be rule-breakers. They want to control their lives and environments and are resistant to relinquishing control to anyone else for any reason.
  • People vary in terms of their self-centeredness. For these individuals, taking care of their own needs (even putting on a somewhat uncomfortable mask) may trump concerns about others.

How can I get along with a friend who sees things differently than me? What if my friend keeps breaking distancing rules and wants me to do the same?

Whenever anxieties are high, it’s easy for people—even close friends—to get into arguments and disagreements. Here are some tips for maintaining these friendships while protecting your health and well-being:

  • Remember that this is new territory for all of us. The circumstances and stakes of our decisions are unprecedented, different than anything else we have experienced in the past. Give yourself the gift of time to figure out what degree of distancing feels right to you and allow your friend to do the same. You may find that she comes around to your way of thinking.
  • Explain your position to your friend calmly and explain how you arrived there. Don’t try to convince her to make the same decisions as you.
  • Keep communication channels open. Take time to listen to your friend’s position and ask questions so you understand where she is coming from. 
  • Explain the difference between physical distancing and social connectedness. Make plans to speak, Facetime, Zoom, and stay in touch, and remain connected even if you can’t be together. Reassure your friend that your friendship is important but you want to protect your health.
  • Remember that you have the right to say “no.” Be firm and explain your position and agree to disagree, if it comes to that. 
  • If you reach an impasse and can’t communicate, it may suggest that it would be useful to put the friendship “on pause” for the time being.

As the weather gets warmer and the number of COVID cases or deaths fall, this could lull people into a false sense of security, forgetting that their actions have made a difference. But there is still a great deal of uncertainty. No one knows how long this pandemic will last, how quickly scientists will make inroads, and whether the virus will mutate or recur again later in the year.

Finding ways to remain physically distant but stay socially connected may turn out to be “the new normal” for a sustained period of time.

Have “social distancing guidelines” had an adverse impact on your friendships? 

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Comments (2)

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  1. Cindy L says:

    Glad to see you’re back, and with such an excellent topic. Since I’m on a medication that impacts my immunity, I have to follow pandemic restrictions carefully. I’m trying other ways to keep in touch. I love sending snail mail, so I’m getting out my boxes of note cards and writing notes to friends and family. It’s a relaxing ritual for me. My husband and I Skype our family often.

    I also want to comment on something you noted in your article: “The pandemic is frightening to most of us and one style of coping with a threat of this magnitude is to deny the gravity of a situation entirely.” This makes perfect sense! I have a neighbor who handles her fear by staying in denial, just as you pointed out. She thinks the new reports are exaggerating the problem, though she has no idea how high the death toll is — and makes a point of avoiding such facts. She invites people into her home, and goes shopping without a mask, and she boasts about it to others. Our city (Detroit) has been hit hard — so her behavior is foolish.

    • Irene says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Cindy. All good wishes for your health during these challenging times.

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