How to Keep Your Distance and Your Friends

I witnessed an incident between a customer and storeowner. It started with a curse word. Which was followed by an explanation, along with more curse words. Not to be outdone, the customer retorted with an equally impressive set of curse words, coupled with, well, more curse words. The argument ended with the proprietor demanding that the customer leave his establishment—immediately!

I watched this interaction between proprietor and customer transpire in less time than it takes to microwave popcorn. Did it have to end this way? No. Did either want it to end this way? Probably not. Yet, both felt justified in his response, and might respond the same way again, if faced with a similar situation.

Unfortunately, since the arrival of the novel coronavirus and the measures people are taking to contain it, this type of interaction has become more common. It seems the precautionary measures themselves aren’t so controversial, but where and how they are applied can be. It turns out that different people have different risk-tolerance levels and different ideas of risk, which leads to opportunities for conflict.

In 2015, VitalSmarts conducted a study looking at how unconscious bias contributes to conflict, and whether it’s possible to reduce its impact. And while that particular study was about unconscious gender bias, we also have unconscious biases about health and hygiene.

We learned from that 2015 study that we can reduce the influence of unconscious bias on behaviour by explicitly framing certain situations.

Framing is the act of sharing background and rationale for one’s behaviour in order to dispel assumptions—or biases—about it. It’s useful for dealing with a broad or vague context where behaviour can be misinterpreted. The broad context in the case of COVID-19 is the everyday interaction between people. By expressing your purpose and motive for specific health-related behaviours, you clear up unknowns that might otherwise allow unconscious bias to generate misunderstanding.

While there are different frames you could use, let me offer two that might be particularly useful in the event you decline to shake someone’s hand, ask a guest to cough into their arm, invite someone to remain on the porch, or follow some other COVID-related health practice.

The Behavioural Frame: With a behavioural frame, you signal to others what you intend to do, and then you proceed to do it. This frame helps remove the surprise that often accompanies unanticipated actions. Instead of leaving the person to their own potentially inaccurate interpretation of your actions, you provide context up front. For example, the cursing cousins we started with might have had a more fruitful exchange had one led with, “Just so you know, we’re wiping down all the counters and doorknobs after anybody touches them to ensure these common areas stay germ-free. So, I’m going to disinfect this display case after you’re done looking.”

The Value Frame: The value frame highlights the “why” of your actions. While your values are readily apparent to you, they typically aren’t to others. So, help them understand what your actions mean to you and how they relate to less obvious values. As with the retail altercation described above, we often resort to this frame after a situation has escalated, which can have the effect of a guilt trip. Instead, try leading with it. It might sound something like, “It might seem excessive to you, but I’m taking extra precaution to keep the area and myself sanitized because I have a three-year-old-daughter who’s in the high-risk category.”

As you find yourself in these types of situations in the days and weeks to come, remember you don’t have to choose between keeping yourself safe and keeping friends. Choose both. Use a behaviour frame, a value frame, or both to help yourself and others avoid rash judgements and conflict.

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