A man in northern Virginia (wearing an inflatable Trump tube) was charged with simple assault last week after purposely coughing in the faces of a group of women following a spat about mask wearing. The incident exposed the uncomfortable power imbalance between masked and maskless individuals in tight public spaces. Non-mask wearers have the ability to endanger you—as well as everyone in your bubble—simply by being close to you and subjecting you to potentially adverse droplets. And approaching those people, to ask them to cover up mouths and noses, can be, if not perilous, at least plain awkward.
While the best course of action might be simply to walk away from a maskless person, that’s not always possible. If you do have to ask someone to pull up, or put on, a mask, experts say broach the topic rationally, not emotionally, and be willing to take the high road. Respect and empathy for the other person are key—especially at a time where everyone is in a state of anxiety—so as to educate, and not alienate, that individual.
As an example, take a crowded subway ride, where there’s no room to move away from the unmasked person. Showing respect and empathy, from the get-go, should disarm them, says Susan Driscoll, president of the Crisis Prevention Institute. In normal times, the institute helps people to deescalate everyday moments of crisis. Since the pandemic set in, that conflict deescalation is often related to COVID-19 and mask wearing; the National Retailers Association approached the group to conduct an online course on that very topic. Driscoll suggests a script for engaging conversation, which is entirely rational and unemotional. You may try something like: “I respect your right to personal freedom, or that you might find a mask uncomfortable. I have an elderly parent at home; would you mind putting on a mask?”
In this unprecedented, locked-down reality, “Everybody in the world is now in a state of anxiety,” Driscoll says, which is the first of four stages in the “crisis development model.” After anxiety comes defensive behavior, then risk behavior (where the person may lose emotional or physical control). If people can recognize those stages in real-life situations, it makes them more likely to approach scenarios rationally, rather than emotionally. That means also having to cast aside judgments about the other person, such as considering them to be selfish. “We teach to avoid the power struggle at all costs, because it never goes well,” she says. “If you’re calm and consistent and empathetic, you will have a much better result than if you go in with guns blazing.”
If things were to escalate, you might try: “Would you mind just putting a mask on until I get off the subway?” If that fails, it may be the time to meet in the middle. “If you won’t wear a mask, I’ll face one way; could you just face the other way?” That sort of compromise isn’t ideal, especially when you have the science on your side—but some sort of outcome, she says, is “better than them coughing in your face.”
Ashley Ritter, a nurse practitioner and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees with basic tenets of respect and empathy. Her practice and research center on how personal patient decisions, such as mask wearing, may fit in with broader public health goals. She adds that “mask shaming” people can make them double down on their original behavior. Like Driscoll, she suggests generating, as much as possible, a productive dialogue. “Those kinds of dialogues, on buses and trains and in parks, can really open up conversations across a number of divides within our society,” she says. She admits that an extended period of talking is not ideal, and it defeats the entire purpose of reducing face-to-face interaction, so simple gestures, like politely stepping back, can show discomfort without confrontation.
“I’m not saying that I don’t feel angry or frustrated, often,” Ritter admits, “but, if you sit in that anger, it’s very hard to change the practices around you.” The underlying idea in these public encounters is to make people feel that wearing a mask is so widely part of social normality—akin to wearing pants, she says—that not wearing one would feel like not belonging. “People have an underlying desire to be part of the norm,” she says. “Activating that [feeling] is a far more effective strategy than calling people out.”
Of course, the optimum strategy is avoiding those errands altogether at busy times, leaving those public spaces to essential workers who have little choice but to be out. If canceling travel isn’t an option, Driscoll advises being extra prepared in these times. That means, literally, by packing extra masks, in case others need them, but also mentally, by allowing for people’s heightened anxieties. “You almost have to be prepared to be stoic, to be rational, and to be mindful when you leave the door,” she says.