Sometime back I signed up to receive The Washington Post’s “Coronavirus Updates” free newsletter. (If you’re interested in getting your own copy, you can sign up here.) The information offered in the newsletter isn’t generally anything new and/or earth-shattering, but at the end of each issue they share, and provide a response to, questions related to the virus — and some of them can be very relatable.
Such a question was included in the latest issue, which I’m sharing here. I think many of my readers will identify with “Anne in Pennsylvania.”
“I live in an area with a large Republican majority. State law requires masks inside and outside. Today, I unfortunately was in a checkout line behind an unmasked 30-something female, very busy chatting up the cashier. I said nothing, because we were inside and the problem of aerosols would just have been aggravated. What is your advice for a courteous way to mention to people that their habits put my health at risk while still minimizing the risk of confrontation?” — Anne in Pennsylvania
This is becoming an unhappily frequent conundrum. On the one hand, we have scientific evidence that it’s especially dangerous to be near people who fail to wear masks. On the other hand, confronting such people risks increasing the chance of contagion, or even violence.
Nor do these bare-faced renegades appear to be going away. A small group of anti-maskers actually marched through a Target store in Florida this month, loudly inviting customers to join them.
Let’s first dispense with two obvious options for Anne: She could have simply left the store, though applying this advice globally would effectively surrender all public spaces to anti-maskers. Or she could have reported the offending customer to a store manager, though doing so would have simply forced an employee to take on the risk of confrontation and contagion. We’ve reported that retail workers already have it hard enough during the pandemic.
Luckily, experts do have advice for how to encourage a stranger to mask up without provoking them into even more dangerous behavior, which wellness reporter Allyson Chiu shared in an article today.
The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s possible the maskless person is a narcissist — someone who lacks empathy and believes themselves exempt from rules. That may sound like a snap judgment, but Chiu reports that peer-reviewed studies in the United States, Brazil and Poland all suggest that people prone to narcissism are less likely to follow social distancing guidelines or wear masks.
This does not mean everyone without a mask in the grocery store has a personality disorder, but it may be safest for you to assume they do, because another common trait of narcissists is being prone to anger. A simple eye roll directed at a maskless narcissist “will be enough to spin them into a rage,” a clinical psychologist at California State University at Los Angeles told Chiu.
So you should avoid even semi-confrontational comments such as “You’re supposed to wear a mask in here,” behavioral experts told Chiu. One suggested speaking to the person like a “hostage negotiator:” kindly, softly and appealing to their own self-interest as much as yours.
A Harvard Medical School psychologist suggests trying the line: “You can make the difference between life and death because we’re all in this together.” Using the word “we” emphasizes interconnection and might appeal to a narcissist’s sense of grandiosity. A small bribe might work, too: some experts recommend carrying an extra factory-sealed mask with you and offering it to the person you’re trying to convince.
At all costs, avoid letting the conversation become an argument. If it’s clear that the person isn’t listening to you or is stirring to anger, you should disengage. Simply stop responding to them, and walk away if you have to. You tried your best to make the situation safer for everyone around you. You can at least make it safer for yourself by leaving.
I tend to think most of us would prefer to avoid any confrontation on this issue, but if you decide to try the suggested approach, let us know how it went!