Image from Wikimedia Commons licensed under Creative Commons

The coming covid conflict

We’re soon all going to be pitched against one another in a very public way — here’s how to make sure it doesn’t get personal.

It was some time around last Summer I first saw someone in my local shop without a mask on.

A young man, casually dressed, strolled in and started looking along the shelves at the back of the store.

At first I couldn’t work out what it was that was wrong with what I was seeing but I knew something wasn’t right.

Then it clicked. I could see his nose and mouth. He’d walked right in without a mask on.

I was surprised. I felt angry.

My mind judged him to be inconsiderate. I know the owners of the shop — they’re not elderly but they’re both grandparents and have been providing a public service to the local community since the beginning of the pandemic, essentially putting themselves at risk.

My mind judged him to be selfish. I’d already assumed he didn’t believe in masks and that he was fed up with the impingement on his freedoms and was choosing to act out, potentially putting others in harms’ way.

I wanted to tell him to have more respect. I imagined following him into the village and having a quiet word with him.

Fortunately, I (usually) know better than to listen to the chatter in my head.

I recognised the tightness in my chest and the urge to do something rash, took a deep breath and just let everything calm down.

What’s to come

This week, the UK Government announced that very soon there would be no legal requirement to wear a mask in a public space.

This is at the same time that the daily news broadcasts report ever-increasing numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19.

Medical professionals are warning of a third wave and a massive spike some time in August as the UK public, experiencing history’s most acute case of cabin fever, are likely to be all over the place (in more ways than one) for the next couple of months.

Transport bosses are already warning that their staff will not be expected to ‘break up fights’ between people wearing masks and those who don’t.

It sounds pretty dramatic, but conflict over wearing a mask is not a new thing, with numerous flashpoints in the US last year. The most notable being a woman who was videod shouting at staff in a Trader Joes last year after they asked her to put on a mask — which coined the term ‘Karen’.

Although this gave everyone on the internet a much-needed good laugh, the experience for the staff member trying to meet their responsibilities was clearly thoroughly unpleasant, and this experience is not an isolated event, with numerous shop workers, hospital staff and members of the public reporting verbal and physical conflicts over mask wearing.

As the New York Times put it: essential workers have been given an additional task: conflict resolution.

In the UK, we will all have to learn how to manage these situations, if we’re to maintain a semblance of sanity and cohesion over the Summer months and beyond.

What’s the problem with masks?

There are numerous videos from all over the world (particularly the US) of people completely losing their shit after being asked to put on a mask or after being told they can’t come into a building without one.

Why would someone get so angry about putting a covering over their nose and mouth, along with every other person in that building?

The truth is, it’s not about the mask.

Perhaps they’ve had enough of having their freedoms curtailed and not putting a mask on is the only possible way they can express her right to choose.

Perhaps they’re deeply anxious that not wearing a mask actually is putting others at risk and when someone draws attention to their choice, they are trying to protect themselves from the potential for overwhelming shame and embarrassment.

Perhaps they just left it at home and on the way to the store got a ticket for speeding, was rear-ended in a queue of traffic then got an email telling her them they lost her job.

No one else truly knows why people act out the way that they do. And sometimes not even they know.

Life — especially at the moment — can be so messy and confusing, that we spend every day just reacting to things as they come up, without discernment or consideration because that is all we have the capacity for.

How we manage this tricky territory

It’s been nearly a year since I was caught off-guard seeing the young feller in the local shop without a mask on.

Since then we’ve had the vaccine roll-out, months more of tedious lockdown and now the dangled carrot that is ‘freedom day’.

It’s hardly surprising that an increasing number of people are already choosing to ditch the mask.

At the same time, with cases increasing and anxiety over what happens when restrictions ease, a large number of people are going to be steadfastly keeping the mask on.

Already on the school run we’ve got a good split between mask wearers and non-mask wearers and I can feel the potential for unease that this creates.

As soon as I did notice this, I made a commitment not to get sucked into the drama that this could become.

In order for that to happen, I’m trying to remember three simple things.

1. It’s not about you (or your judgement of me)

Regardless of how you feel about someone else’s behaviour — whether that’s about wearing a mask or not — that person is only doing the best they can to get their needs met.

In any given moment, the choices we make are a reflection of what’s going on for us. They’re not usually aimed at other people, and even when they seem to be, they’re still just a reflection of how we think and feel about ourselves.

If I choose not to wear a mask, it’s not that I don’t care about putting you or other people at risk. I’m not saying: “I’m putting myself first, screw you if you get Covid.”

I might not know, or believe, that masks are about protecting others from the risk of me spreading infection. I might believe that there’s no chance I’d have it anyway.

Speaking from my own perspective, I live on a smallholding in the most rural part of England where I spend 80% of my time on my own in a workshop. The chances of me having or spreading Covid are next to nothing.

So if I do choose to wear a mask, it’s not that I’m anxious that I’m going to get Covid, or that I just do everything the government tells me to do (that’s definitely not my MO). Nor is it that I want you to feel uneasy that you’ve made the choice to ditch yours.

All I’m doing is what I think is right for me.

So try to acknowledge the difficult feelings and notice the judging. Remind yourself that everything that you’re thinking is an assumption and it’s really not about you.

Take nothing personally.

2. People are just doing their best

So, if it’s not about you, it’s about them.

Everyone has got their reasons for wearing or not wearing a mask.

The behaviour that you see, while it’s so obvious and simple — the covering is there or it’s not — is a reflection of a possible myriad of reasons.

For example:

Non-mask-wearer: I can’t see any way I could possibly have picked up Covid and I’m utterly fed up of wearing this uncomfortable, unnecessary mask.

Mask-wearer: I don’t believe I could possibly have Covid but I want other people to know that I’m considering their needs.

Non-mask-wearer: I understand that I could have — or get — Covid but it’s not serious for most people and we just can’t go on this way.

Mask-wearer: I read about long Covid and I’m a single, working parent supporting two kids. Getting ill would mean losing our house.

I could write pages of this stuff and still not cover all the reasons people might make a particular decision.

The point isn’t for you to understand everyone’s rationale but to accept that everyone has a reason that makes sense to them.

You don’t have to know it to accept it, but to accept it means not tying yourself up in unnecessary judgement, worry or frustration.

3. Do what’s right for you

You can’t control other people, and trying to do so will end up in drama or worse.

The fear, irritation and anger we can feel when someone is doing something we believe is inconsiderate (‘putting others at risk’ for example) or foolish (e.g. ‘believing everything they read’) can make us feel like we have to ‘do something’.

It’s very rare that these kind of actions lead to anything constructive. It doesn’t matter how you go about trying to tell someone to put a mask on, or question why they are wearing one, in the tense environment we’re in it’s likely they will know why you’re asking and the outcome isn’t likely to be constructive.

If it’s a good friend and you genuinely want to understand their perspective, have a chat about it.

Allow it to get a bit tricky but try to stay curious (rather than judgey) and trust things will work out in the end.

However, it might be best just to acknowledge the feelings and ask what you need.

Is it to get to work safely?

Is it to collect your children with minimum stress?

Is it to enjoy your well-earned pint with your mates?

Then just ask what would genuinely meet that need. Perhaps it’s just to shift your focus from other people to your breathing and let the irritation or anxiety subside.

Perhaps it’s just to calmly leave as soon as you’re able to.

Perhaps it’s to strike up a conversation with someone you feel comfortable with to put your attention elsewhere.

Either way, the trick is to ask what you need, and to take care not to act out in ways that bring you unnecessary stress and drama.

What to do if you find yourself in confrontation

Despite all this, you might find yourself in a situation where someone has already started to get confrontational.

At this point, it’s likely that they’ve lost the ability to suspend judgement and you’ve become the target for their worry or frustration.

The first thing to do is calmly decline to take part — ‘I hear you — I wear this mask for me, I don’t mean to cause you any problems. I’m just going to get on with my shopping now’

Or ‘I hear you — I choose not to wear a mask and that’s my decision, I don’t mean to cause you any discomfort. I’m getting off at the next stop anyway.’

The key is to try not to take it personally, realise that they’re struggling, stay calm and say ‘no thanks’.

If they are persistent and have clearly decided that they are going to keep going at you, move away as quickly as possible, preferably to a busier area.

Particularly if you are on your own in a quiet place, move to a public space.

If it feels like it may become physical, raise your voice and make sure it’s very clear that you want them to leave you alone. Move as quickly as you can to an area that is staffed and has CCTV, such as a train station or shop.

It’s not your fight

Whether you think it’s a good or bad thing that the UK Government is going to drop masks as a legal requirement, you’ll be able to find evidence to confirm your bias — that’s what the internet is best suited to these days.

So with this in mind, while the decision is being put on to the individual, none of us have a truly accurate and transparent dataset — let alone perspective — to make what could be called the ‘right’ decision.

For these reasons, to protect your mental health, along with your physical, we’re going to have to learn to respect others’ choices, even if we don’t understand them, and focus on doing what’s best for us.

If this piece helped you today, there’s a good chance that you’ll get a lot from my six-week online course ‘Working with Healthy Conflict’

It pulls together ten years of learning and practice, built on my life-long exploration of how to deal with the trickiness of being human.

During July I’ve halved the cost of the course, to support everyone who’s working through the emotional and psychological impact of the pandemic.

Watch the trailer and find out more at www.howtofightwell.com

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Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally. www.maxstjohn.com

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Max St John

Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally. www.maxstjohn.com