GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Wearing or not wearing a mask in public has quickly become a point of contention for some. Confrontations between strangers have ended in fights and even death.

During a time when many people are feeling heightened anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic, Spectrum Health clinical psychologist Lyndsay Volpe-Bertram has compiled a list of nine things to keep in mind when talking with others about masks.

Volpe-Bertram said to beware of your own assumptions.

“If you are in the mask camp and you’re dedicated to wearing it and you see someone else who doesn’t have one on, I think the immediate reaction is very defensive and maybe angry,” she said. “We might make assumptions as to why that person isn’t wearing a mask or attribute things to them that they might not intend. It’s really good to approach someone with curiosity and ask in a nondefensive way, ‘Hey, can you help me understand why you’re not wearing a mask today?’ Or even just to prompt them to see if many they forgot one.”

Another healthy way to have a productive conversation with a person with opposing views is to use “I” statements.

“‘I am concerned about you not wearing a mask,’ or, ‘I don’t feel comfortable when you’re not wearing one,'” she demonstrated. “When we approach somebody with ‘you,’ that often feels very threatening and can make somewhere feel very defensive.”
Body language plays a big role in communication, especially when a conversation is or might become heated.

“When we might be standing too close to someone or our posture is very closed off, shoulders are shrugged, your arms are crossed, it makes us appear less open and can be intimidating. Relax your shoulders, drop your arms, keep open body language between you and someone else. If it seems like they are too close to you, it’s perfectly OK to ask them to have a little extra space. Just that physical proximity alone right now can feel very threatening,” Volpe-Bertram said.
Tone and volume of our voice can also make or break a healthy conversation. Volpe-Bertram encourages people to keep a low and consistent volume when speaking to others.

“Inherently, when we start to feel upset or agitated, we get louder. That’s probably because we want to feel heard or just because of the emotions surrounding it,” she said. “Even if they’re yelling and you, if you have a quieter tone, it will often prompt them to be a little quieter themselves and also to be a little quieter so they can hear you more easily.”

There’s been a lot of misinformation dispersed and changing information since the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic. Volpe-Bertram said it can be good to find out what a person might know or not know about the disease.

“When you get the better understanding about why they’re doing a specific behavior or what their intentions are, we can look for opportunities to appropriately educate,” she said. “Maybe they tell you, ‘I don’t wear a mask because I think it’s harmful for my body.’ Perhaps you could ask them, ‘Hey, would you be interested in reading an article or reviewing a particular video?’ It’s helpful, too, to think about who that person respects, especially if it’s someone that you know, and perhaps find information on a source that they trust because they will be more likely to receive and consider that information if it’s from someone they respect.”

When communication does break down, it is OK to walk away.

“If it’s someone you don’t know, it’s easy usually just to say, ‘Have a good day, I’ll see you later…’ If it is a family member it’s OK to stop and say, ‘Can we come back to this later? Let’s each take some time to breath and think about what we want to say,'” Volpe-Bertram said.

Remember to keep the other person’s emotions in mind. For a lot of people, wearing or not wearing a mask is an issue tied to emotions.

“This is a great way to validate someone’s feelings and often times when we can just label and validate the emotion, they feel heard. That is really helpful to pull some of the strain off of what we’re experiencing. If I say to somebody, ‘It seems like you’re feeling really anxious about this, is that right?’ that also gives them the opportunity to correct me if that’s not the correct emotion,” Volpe-Bertram said.

Volpe-Bertram says in the worst-case scenario, it might be time to look for an alternative solution: help solve the problem.

“If they’re trying to go into a store, it might be asking them if they’re willing to accept the mask from an employee, if there’s someone else that might be able to go out and do that shopping for them or even to think about some of the online options or grocery delivery services that may be able to still help them get what they need but avoid having any further confrontation,” Volpe-Bertram said.