What to do with friends who don’t social distance
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‘Stay at home’ is a simple message, but as countries open up with social distancing guidelines, there’s more room for interpretation – especially among friends.

When people in Madrid were finally allowed to meet with up to 10 friends after six weeks in lockdown, some couldn’t wait to gather over beers back at their favourite bar terrace, or host a dinner at their apartment. But others were unsure about how to socialise, and some even found themselves judging the different behaviours of people in their network.

“We’re trying to coordinate meeting a bigger group ‘round a friend’s house this weekend, and I think that is kind of causing some tensions,” says Amber, 40, who asked us not to use her surname in case it creates future conflict.

Some of her friends, who are all in their 30s or early 40s, are nervous about how flippantly one member of their group has been taking the risks of the virus. The woman told them that it felt “too annoying” to wear a mask in the supermarket despite these being mandatory in Spain. “It is a transition phase.... and, certainly, people are starting to look at each other with a bit more suspicion,” says Amber.

Garvin Wolfe van Dernoot, a 21-year-old student in Colorado’s Avon County, one of the first places in the US to start opening up, has also been anxious about meeting with friends who aren’t as cautious as he is.

Amber says there are tensions in her friend groups as they attempt to hang out in a pre-vaccine world (Credit: Amber, surname withheld)

Amber says there are tensions in her friend groups as they attempt to hang out in a pre-vaccine world (Credit: Amber, surname withheld)

“Some people have small parties and get-togethers where all guidelines have gone out the window,” he says. This includes giving each other car rides where people are sat in close proximity, and refusing to wear face coverings, which his state also advises people to wear in public. “It becomes confusing when we’re still seeing deaths.… but people are acting like for them, the pandemic is over,” says Wolfe van Dernoot.

He’s found it difficult to talk to those who have broken guidelines, and ended up leaving sarcastic comments on one girl’s Snapchat, which caused her to remove him from her private story feed. Although they weren’t close, he doesn’t think they’ll talk going forward.

Why do we have different boundaries?

Dr Kate Hamilton-West, a health psychologist at the University of Kent in England, argues that whereas most people easily understood the message that “you must stay at home if that is possible” during lockdowns, it is “human nature” that more varied types of behaviours and responses will emerge if governments and institutions give people more choice.

This is partly because different personality types can be generally more or less risk-averse, or have contrasting value preferences. “Protecting others, for example, is something that people will value to different degrees... for some people, that might be less important to them than things like, for example, having autonomy over your own decision-making.”

In Sweden, which never had a lockdown, researchers from Lund University found that the strongest indicator of how likely people were to follow voluntary recommendations was their willingness to adapt their actions for the benefit of others. They measured this kind of responsible “pro-social” behaviour through surveys and game-based experiments, focused on how much they would put others at risk in order to win more money for themselves. Being pro-social was a predictor for following physical distancing and hygiene measures, buying a cloth face mask and seeking out health information about Covid-19.

"People are acting like for them, the pandemic is over,” says Gravin Wolfe van Dernoot, a student in the US state of Colorado (Credit: Gravin Wolfe van Dernoot)

"People are acting like for them, the pandemic is over,” says Gravin Wolfe van Dernoot, a student in the US state of Colorado (Credit: Gravin Wolfe van Dernoot)

Other potential key influences, says Hamilton-West, include the information we get from different media, friends and family or medical professionals, and our own past experiences of illness. For instance, those who are generally well and have not previously had a severe sickness may consider themselves unlikely to catch the virus, regardless of the evidence that even young, healthy people have died from Covid-19.

“We tend to form something called a ‘personal model’ of the illness,” she explains. “We all have our own set of perceptions around things like how serious the symptoms would be if we contracted the illness, how long they would last for, how effective treatments would be.” These personal models may also be connected to how closely we have experienced the crisis. For example, living with a relative in a risk group or knowing someone who became ill or died from Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic might play a role in how cautious you are in social interactions once recommendations are lifted.

In Madrid, where Amber’s been dealing with disagreements between friends, she has already observed a difference between those who went into lockdown in apartments in the city-centre and those who hunkered down “in wealthy, leafy suburbs or in the mountains... and got out every day with the dog”. The former tended to feel a more imminent threat when leaving home at the height of the pandemic, and she believes this is why many of them are more cautious about socialising now.

By contrast, Alexander, a 34-year-old Australian working in Rome’s start-up scene, says there’s been “very little tension” among his friends, who all quickly adapted to going out to bars together again, although they aim to choose outdoor terraces and meet in smaller groups. “Everyone wants to follow the rules because it's seen as a civic duty to do so.” He speculates that one reason his core group has behaved the same way is because it’s made up of people who all shared similar experiences of the pandemic, including none of them knowing anyone in their city who was a confirmed coronavirus case.

Different emotional reactions

Psychologists also point to the importance of emotions in shaping our behaviours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with a pre-existing tendency to worry may find it harder to begin socialising again after lockdown. But Hamilton-West points out that if someone appears to be regularly breaching social-distancing or other health guidelines, that could also be a warning sign that they are experiencing high anxiety levels connected to Covid-19.

“If we're really, really worried about it, we might do things that make ourselves feel better, and one of those things is called avoidance-coping,” explains Hamilton-West. By avoiding thinking about the virus, this might make some “unlikely to engage in activities which remind [them] of it” such as social distancing, wearing a mask or hand-washing, and being more drawn to socialising and seeking out physical contact in the same way as they did before the onset of the virus.

For others, a refusal to follow new guidelines for socialising may be a reaction to challenging environmental circumstances, such as difficulties with personal relationships at home, social isolation or financial hardship. “Sometimes, these actions are not coming from a place of rebellion but from loneliness, desperation, or necessity,” explains Dr Miriam Kirmayer, a Montreal-based clinical psychologist and friendship expert.

It makes sense that “turning to others, even when it comes with risk” is a coping mechanism for some of those who are struggling during the pandemic. This is because psychological research has long shown that physically connecting with others can boost our mental and physical health.

“We are hardwired for connection and there is great comfort in turning to those we feel closest to,” explains Kirmayer.

"Express that this is coming from a place of care and concern, as opposed to a moral high ground," says Miriam Kirmayer, a psychologist in Montreal (Credit: Jessica Pevzner)

"Express that this is coming from a place of care and concern, as opposed to a moral high ground," says Miriam Kirmayer, a psychologist in Montreal (Credit: Jessica Pevzner)

How to talk to friends you disagree with

While understanding or at least empathising with those who’ve got an alternative approach to social distancing is a crucial first step, simply agreeing to disagree with a friend may not be an option. Unlike in most other disputes, a friend’s behaviours may pose a risk to your own health and others you come into contact with, as well as their own.

Kirmayer warns that directly confronting the rule-breaker could result in them becoming defensive, and says it’s important to accept in advance that we ultimately “do not actually have a say in whether someone changes their behaviour”.

However, there are tricks that may help to ease these sorts of difficult conversations.

“Instead of labelling a friend as irresponsible or reckless... it can be helpful to focus on your own values and experiences and to express that this is coming from a place of care and concern, as opposed to a moral high ground,” says Kirmayer.

If your friend doesn’t seem to be willing or able to change their behaviours, the next step is “to make that decision about whether you're actually going to maintain contact with them in a physical sense” says Hamilton-West. “If it's going to put you at risk and your other friends at risk, then it's perfectly reasonable to say, ‘actually, I can't meet with you at the moment... I don't want to be responsible for passing it onto my other friends’.”

She says it’s also important to continually monitor what’s happening in social situations you choose to attend. For instance, if you turn up to a friend’s birthday where you’re expecting a handful of people, but end up in a room of 20 where it’s impossible to distance, it’s acceptable “to say to them, ‘I don't feel safe in this situation and I am going to go now’.”

“Our concept of what being a good friend is at the moment, has had to shift, and I think that’s something really useful for all of us to think about,” says Hamilton-West.

Should you break up with a friend over Covid?

Psychologists agree that if you keep clashing with a friend over how to socialise, this might demonstrate deeper issues with the relationship. However, both Kirmayer and Hamilton-West warn against making any abrupt decisions when it comes to cutting them out of your life.

“We each can and should be able to decide what our non-negotiables are in our relationships…  [but] this should be balanced with the reality that a pandemic is not necessarily the time to be making final or rash decisions about our friendships,” says Kirmayer. “My advice is to ask several questions before ending a relationship. First, does this difficulty reflect a larger pattern or ongoing issue, or is it specific to social distancing guidelines? Next, have you actually tried to share your discomfort and struggles with your friend? Have you opened up about why it bothers you?”

She suggests that friendships you think are worth keeping may be salvaged by creating new boundaries; for example, maintaining contact via social media or video calls, and avoiding discussions about Covid-19 as the crisis continues.

“Once we come out of this situation, once we're at a point that anxiety is not quite so high for everybody, we may find that actually we do still have that shared friendship,” agrees Hamilton-West. “I think it is a shame to lose friends over the situation, when it's just such a difficult time for everybody.”