What to Say to Friends or Family Members Who Hesitate to Wear a Mask

It’s what you say and how you say it.

The evidence is clear: Wearing face masks reduces the spread of COVID-19. Covering your face helps protect the people around you, health authorities emphasize. But if people aren’t paying attention, then all that data and all that advice are moot.

When those around you — family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances or even strangers — aren’t wearing masks, you might want to speak up. But how you present the facts supporting face mask use can tilt the discussion toward being heard — or being tuned out.

Here are do’s and don’ts from experts on making your pro-mask case instead of creating backlash. Face-mask facts are sprinkled in for you to (persuasively) offer.

Stay calm and avoid getting triggered.

“As soon as you react in an emotional way, you’ve lost credibility,” says Kristi Sanborn Miller, an assistant professor and patient safety officer for the Mary Black School of Nursing at University of South Carolina Upstate. “It’s important to stay calm and remember that name-calling and defensiveness rarely win someone over.”

Instead, gently probe for individual motivations, she suggests. Embarrassment is one of the deeper reasons that people don’t wear masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, she finds: “They don’t want to do something that draws attention to themselves or makes themselves seem odd or different.”

Fact: A mask acts as a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto others when someone coughs, sneezes, talks or raises their voice. Emerging evidence from clinical and laboratory studies shows that masks reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meet others where they are.

“I always meet people where they are and try to use that as a starting point,” says Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist and professor in the School of Medicine at University of California, San Francisco. “Sometimes it may take one conversation. Oftentimes, it requires multiple conversations over a period of time.”

Assess where people are on the spectrum of mask-wearing, he suggests. Are individuals completely against mask-wearing? Or are they aware of the science, know that mask-wearing is a good idea but have specific barriers that preclude them from masking? Sample questions:

— Do they feel embarrassed at wearing masks in certain situations, like a teen meet-up?

— Do they see mask-wearing as an infringement of personal liberty, driven by COVID-19-related restrictions?

“Knowing exactly where people are can give you a point of departure to begin and continue the conversation — rather than assuming people are on a binary scale of ‘for’ and ‘against,'” he says.

Fact: If masks bother your skin, there are ways to address mask irritation and increase your comfort.

Ditch the dogma.

Talking down to others only turns them off. If you happen to work in a scientific, medical, public health or similar field, you’ll communicate better by climbing down from your pedestal.

“Dictatorial and dogmatic statements like ‘I am a medical professional,’ ‘I know the science’ and ‘you should listen to me,’ will have a low likelihood of working,” Chin-Hong says. “Depending on who you are speaking to, and if there is a power differential, they may tacitly ‘agree’ but this approach rarely results in behavior change.”

Fact: Social norms around mask-wearing are evolving, according to a May 14 summary in Scientific American, just as once-explosive mandates like nonsmoking sections and pooper-scooper laws became cultural norms.

Spare the scolding.

“Scolding people doesn’t work,” says Laura Bogart, a senior behavioral scientist with RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to developing solutions to public policy challenges. “Most people don’t react well to being told what to do — and may even respond by doing the opposite.”

Shaming a stranger in the grocery store and yelling, “Wear a mask,” is simply not going to work, Bogart says. (In these hot-button times, it’s probably not the safest thing to do, either.) “We need to meet people where they are and have a nonjudgmental, open conversation about the issue,” she advises.

Fact: Masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when widely used by people in public settings, according to the CDC.

Listen, too.

Seek your listener’s perspective.”If you really want to change someone’s mind, you have to approach them with an open mind and be willing to learn something from them,” Miller says. “The moment you assume that you know what motivates another human being is the moment you’ve lost the argument.”

For instance, you might be trying to get your aunt to wear a mask, despite her assertion that COVID-19 is a “hoax.” To help you realize where she’s coming from, Miller suggests asking the following:

— Help me understand why you feel that way.

— How willing are you to consider making a change?

— What would it take to convince you?

Fact: State mandates to use face masks in public averted more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases by mid-May, according to estimates in a June 16 study in Health Affairs.

Skip sarcasm and snarkiness.

Smart-aleck comments make others bristle, which doesn’t help. “Being snarky, sarcastic or making the argument political are surefire ways to make the person you’re speaking with shut down and turn off,” Miller says.

Instead, speaking with clear concern for everyone’s health — including that of your listener — and compassion for people suffering from COVID-19 may transcend defensiveness and divisiveness.

Fact: To wear a medical mask effectively, the World Health Organization says to wash your hands before touching the mask, inspect it for holes or tears, place the metal or stiff edge over your nose, cover your nose, mouth and chin and adjust the mask to your face so there are no gaps on either side .

Show empathy.

It’s not surprising that not everyone is automatically on board with mask-wearing.

“You might find that mistrust of information about COVID-19 is at the root of their behavior, due to mixed messages from elected officials,” Bogart says. “If so, you can show empathy and acknowledge that skepticism of public health messages is understandable, given the current climate of misinformation and incorrect information around COVID-19.”

People may be confused, Bogart says, and it’s understandable that they may not know what to believe. “Having an open, honest conversation can start a dialogue in which you can respectfully offer information and show genuine concern, but not force your perspective.”

Fact: An analysis of nearly 200 nations found that longer duration of public mask-wearing was associated with lower death rates from COVID-19, according to a preprint study updated on August 4.

Send a consistent message.

Are you an influencer? “Persuasion works best when there is a uniform message at all levels,” Bogart says. “The more we see others wearing masks — people in our communities and people in our social networks, as well as people in leadership positions — the more it will become accepted as a social norm to wears masks.”

Fact: Masks with exhalation valves or vents should not be worn to help prevent the person wearing the mask from spreading the disease to others, says the CDC. Valved masks touted online have not been shown to block exhaled droplets.

Appeal to shared love and affection.

We can all agree on the goal of staying healthy. “Sometimes, appealing to loved ones and externalizing the argument from you and the friend or family member to others that you mutually love and respect may be the key,” Chin-Hong says.

For instance: “How about if we just both start by wearing the mask around Grandma? She hasn’t seen us for some time and I’m worried about her health,” is a compromise that could work.

In a philosophy that can extend to many disagreements, he says, “At the end of the day, meeting people where they are, not destroying your relationship with your family member or friend and coming to some sort of common ground is essential.”

Fact: Masks are part of a combined COVID-19 prevention approach that also includes proper hand-washing and physical distancing.

Cut the dramatics.

“The worst strategy is to yell, ‘Do you want people to die?'” Miller notes. “No one here wants anyone to die — it’s not about that. It’s about fear and misinformation.”

Shocking statements or implied accusations of heartlessness aren’t going to win over any converts. To make any headway, dial it down.

Fact: As you get older, your risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 increases, according to the CDC. However, younger adults and children can become severely ill, too.

Try curious inquiry.

Choose a person-centered approach to communication, Chin-Hong suggests. To build a good relationship, he recommends methods like these:

Humble inquiry. In his 2013 book, “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling,” Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, describes this approach as: “the skill and the art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Negotiation strategies. Almost 30 years ago, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” first provided a blueprint for finding common interests with the person you’re dealing with (“We all want to keep Grandma safe.”) rather than forcing your position on them (“You better wear a mask or else!”)

Fact: By August, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation shows that slightly more than half of the U.S. population was reporting they always wore a mask before leaving home.

Lead by example.

The best leaders don’t ask others to do something they aren’t willing to do themselves. To be truly convincing, lead by example, Bogart says.

“Wear a mask yourself when you go out in public,” she suggests. As more people do so, and mask-wearing becomes the social norm, then it’s those who aren’t wearing masks who will start to feel out of place.

Fact: Health care workers continue to face critical shortages of personal protective equipment like face masks. If possible, save medical-grade N95s for front-line heath providers.

Foster trust.

Who are you going to believe — a brand-new acquaintance or a long-time friend?

“Remember that people listen to others whom they trust in their communities and social circles more than they listen to people whom they don’t know,” Bogart says. “If we want people to change their behaviors, being a role model and answering others’ questions about the issue openly, without judgment, will go a long way.”

Fact: A laser-light study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 21 compared how many saliva droplets enter the air by a person talking with and without a face mask. A simple cloth mask blocked almost all droplets for the mask-wearing researchers.

Express compassion.

The pandemic has been hard on everyone. “Compassionate statements and affirmations may appeal to the loss of freedom that we have all had for many months, starting from the early days of shelter-in-place,” Chin-Hong says.

Try saying something like this, he suggests: “I totally know where you are coming from. Not being able to move around for all these months has been tough on me, too. It’s crazy that gyms and hairdressers have been closed for so long.”

Fact: It’s false that wearing a mask can make people retain carbon dioxide. Studies show that exhaled carbon dioxide flows freely outward through masks.

Find common ground.

As a nurse, Miller says, “I find that when I really want someone to see things my way, I first need to win them over. We do that by taking a genuine interest in the other person’s point of view.”

Instead of diving in on masks, try commenting on the weather or a local sports team, Miller suggests. “Look for clues on the person’s vehicle or clothing that might give you some insight into topics that could ease your path to what you really want to talk about.”

In South Carolina, for instance, “If they are wearing a Panthers T-shirt, ask them who their favorite player is,” she says. “The conversation could then naturally turn to wondering if there are Panthers masks.” (Many professional and college sports organizations now sell branded faces masks.)

Fact: In most situations, you breathe in just as much oxygen while wearing a mask versus going maskless. Using pulse oximeters, physicians have demonstrated oxygen saturation levels of 98% and above in their blood while exercising or working for hours behind a mask. (Normal pulse oximetry rates range from 95% to 100%.)

Respectfully share information.

If you want to pass on information that you feel might come across as heavy-handed or controversial, try an opener like this, Miller suggests: “I heard the other day that a physician went for a 20-mile run with a mask. I can’t imagine doing that. I can wear one when I’m walking around, but exercise seems challenging. What do you think?”

Giving people a chance to share their own beliefs and experiences can make them more receptive to hearing objective data and study results.

Fact: Some people engaged in high-intensity activities, like running, may not be able to wear a mask if it causes difficulty breathing, the CDC notes. If this is the case for you, consider doing the activity in a location with greater ventilation and air exchange (for instance, outdoors versus in a gym) and where it is possible to maintain physical distance from others, the agency advises.

Best approaches to get your mask message across

Treat others with courtesy and kindness when sharing COVID-prevention info:

— Stay calm and avoid getting triggered.

— Ditch the dogma.

— Spare the scolding.

— Listen, too.

— Skip sarcasm and snarkiness.

— Show empathy.

— Send a consistent message.

— Meet others where they are.

— Appeal to shared love and affection.

— Cut the dramatics.

— Try curious inquiry.

— Lead by example.

— Foster trust.

— Express compassion.

— Find common ground.

— Respectfully share information.

More from U.S. News

Ways to Boost Your Immune System

Skin Health When Wearing a Mask

How to Get Rid of Mask Breath

What to Say to Friends or Family Members Who Hesitate to Wear a Mask originally appeared on usnews.com

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