Though we could never have predicted it, face masks have become the accessory of 2020. But like with any trend, some are supportive of this recommended way to slow the spread of COVID-19, and others don’t subscribe to its effectiveness. Those who never leave their homes without protective covering may find it difficult to rationalize or understand their friends or family members who refuse to follow suit. Though it may feel infuriating, sometimes, an awkward, difficult conversation is needed to educate, understand, and foster change.
One of the reasons why some people are anti-mask is the symbol they represent, according to Dr. Paula Wilbourne, the co-founding chief scientific officer at Sibly. As she explains it, masks are a visible symbol of the pandemic, and thus, can cause fear and anxiety. “Arguing about masks allows us to focus our fears on a concrete object we can control instead of an invisible, deadly virus. We can argue about a mask: the discomfort of having it on your face, the initial messaging about whether we should use them, the idea that maybe we won’t get enough oxygen and so on,” she continues. “Discussing a mask gives us a chance to assert ourselves for or against something tangible we can see and touch rather than the virus itself.”
The facts themselves don’t lie: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shared that if every American wore a mask for six to eight weeks, we would have COVID-19 under control.
How can you encourage those nearest and dearest to you to do the right thing for humanity, the greater good, and the overall health of the nation? Here, some strategies from mental health experts:
Accept it will be uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, the United States has become extremely divided on mask-wearing since it’s been turned into a political debate that’s heated, to say the least. This makes the topic even more sensitive, according to psychiatrist Dr. Zlatin Ivanov, MD. The mere mention of a face covering could stir up intense reactions in your friends or family members, causing them to lash out and create a rebuttal. This is heightened if they are also people who are actively involved in politics, and eager to express ‘their side’ of any and all situations. So, even if you are well-intentioned and remain calm, the conversation will be uncomfortable. The hope is it will turn positive, but it requires patience and, likely, some intensity.
“The choice of mask-wearing is so closely connected to many other beliefs and life decisions, if you don’t know how to navigate the debate in a positive direction, your friend might feel offended and judged, which can later turn into a conflict,” Dr. Ivanov warns.
During the discussion, your friend will likely spew out various facts, figures and reasonings for why wearing a mask is a waste of time. This is to be expected, and while you may not agree with anything they’re saying, you still need to listen. As Dr. Ivanov explains, everyone wants to feel heard, since that builds trust. Without it, your conversation will have no room to grow. “Really try to understand their reasoning and establish a safe environment where they can share their views,” he recommends. Then, ask them for the same patience and understanding that you have shown them and share your opinion on the topic, explaining that wearing a mask is essential to you.”
If you approach the conversation from the point of mutual understanding, Dr. Ivanov says your encouragement will have a bigger and more substantial impact on your friend, and the result will be much better.
Focus on your own needs and behavior.
It’s the 101 of expressing how you feel to your romantic partner, and it works the same way with your friends or family. Rather than being accusatory (“You’re not wearing a mask because you don’t care about anyone other than yourself!”), Dr. Wilbourne says it’s much more effective to focus on your needs and behavior. She recommends this phrasing:
“I wear a mask because I am deeply concerned about protecting myself, my family, and my community from this virus. I appreciate the sacrifice of healthcare workers and want to show my respect for their sacrifices. I want to flatten the curve so that our healthcare system has the capacity to treat the sick people who need them.”
No matter how hard they push you or share opinions that feel disrespectful to you, try to keep the conversation coming back to what you’re personally doing. They may not come around, but they will not feel attacked in the same way, either.
Come prepared with facts.
While many do argue with facts these days, it’s still smart to have them at the ready. Particularly if you feel like your friend will also have their own information, try your best to do intensive research before you speak with them, so you are armed with information from scientists. This isn’t only to benefit your case but also to help you determine your own informed opinion, which will give you confidence in the conversation, Dr. Ivanov explains. “By focusing on the facts and the logical side of the arguments, you will be able to avoid discussions and provocations connected to your friends’ personal differences,” he continues. “Just make sure that your encouragement to wear a mask does not get mixed up with politics or other side debates.”
Approach your friend as an individual, not as a group.
Sadly, much of America is separated in an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. And with this issue in particular, no person can be on both sides of the fence.. However, you are talking to one person: your friend or family member. You aren’t speaking with a group of people who happen to have an anti-mask stance as well.
According to research scientist and chief clinical officer at wayForward, Navya Singh, PsyD, it’s important to treat them as individuals who have had their own unique level of stress and anxiety during the pandemic. Though it may be difficult to stomach, she encourages empathy and a non-judgemental stance. Try to reign in the conversation to focus on overall safety, and not on attacking your pal. “Wearing a mask while in public or close to others has now become a guideline, or even mandate, issued by health and government agencies. It is to protect everyone and reduce the spread of a disease,” she continues. “The discussion should be about safety, as well as not just protecting ourselves but others who might be vulnerable.”
Stick to your stance, but be kind.
The hard truth is that your friend may not come around. In fact, they could leave the discussion feeling even more confident that masks are silly. As much as we can try, there is no sure-fire way to convince someone to change their mind. Psychotherapist and author Stephanie Newman Ph.D. says at some point, there is no agreement to be made, and friends must decide they’ll put aside their differences and still remain close. But, not physically close, since you should stick to your beliefs and maintain the recommended six-feet distance rule. “To make a true effort to be flexible during this time, maybe you can offer to meet your friend somewhere outside where it is permitted for them to be mask free, and you can wear yours; and stand far apart,” she continues. “In this situation, you are both able to do what feels right for yourselves, and you are making an effort to connect with them.”
If being near someone who flat out refuses to put a mask on makes you uncomfortable, Newman says to invite your friend to a Zoom cocktail hour or a Houseparty coffee break.
Bottom line? Listen, state your facts, remain calm, and encourage a judgment-free discussion. If you and your friend can’t agree to these terms, you may not be able to have a beneficial conversation.