Awkward: What do you do if you and your friends have different COVID-19 comfort zones?

By Lauren Leazenby, News Editor

Savanna Steffens

Your friends keep inviting you to dinner at an indoor restaurant, your Tinder match wants to finally meet up in person or your roommate is shaming you for not partying with them anymore. No matter what it is, a lot of activities these days fall outside of what we might deem our personal COVID-19 comfort zone.

But as cases are on the rise around the country and particularly in Chicago, how do you get out of social situations you think put you at risk for getting the virus? Experts share their thoughts about changing social norms in the age of COVID-19:

How do you politely turn down an invitation?

Put yourself in a position where you do not have to, said Kendra Knight, an assistant professor of communication studies at DePaul University.

“Discuss expectations in advance while heads are not hot,” Knight said. “Set consequences—or trigger events—associated with those expectations.”

She recommends setting these expectations with friends or a significant other you often hang out with.

For example, Knight said you and a friend might agree not to go to parties. Then, set up consequences for what happens if one of you breaks this agreement. In this case, you might choose not to hang out until they have had a negative COVID-19 test. Finally, put guidelines in place that govern how you will interact with each other when you meet up in person, Knight said, with the caveat in place that if you feel uncomfortable, you are allowed to leave.

“That sounds really harsh, but these are times when being clear about your own boundaries … it’s a good time to practice that,” she said.

If you still find yourself having to get out of a social function, Knight said to use “discursive moves.” She suggests pointing out that you are trying to protect the health of family members.

Knight said to give yourself and others some grace in your relationships. It’s a stressful time and not many of us know how to interact with others, she said.

What do you do if your roommates have different ideas than you about COVID-19 precautions?

Annamarie Pluhar, author of “Sharing Housing: A Guide for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates,” said roommates should always defer to the person who is taking the most stringent precautions.

Everyone’s comfort level is different, but Pluhar said she has seen housemate situations break up because of differing ideas about COVID-19.

“You can’t tell the person who needs to be cautious—or wants to be cautious—that they shouldn’t be,” said Pluhar, the founder of the nonprofit Sharing Housing, Inc, which focuses on teaching people the benefits of shared housing.

Those sharing housing should also understand that not every household is its own quarantine bubble, Pluhar said. Different housemates may have to leave the home to go to work or interact with outside friends and family, which may break the bubble, she said.

How should you establish COVID-19 boundaries in a dating relationship?

“In some ways, the heart of every intimate relationship is the navigation of difference,” said Alexandra Solomon, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University.

As the author of “Taking Sexy Back” and “Loving Bravely,” books on relationships, Solomon said COVID-19 presents extraordinary relationship challenges. To lessen tension between partners, she recommends deferring to the “lowest common denominator,” or the person who is most restrictive in their COVID-19 public health measures.

If you can’t come to an agreement, Solomon said pointing to science—like the CDC’s social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines—may help neutralize differences of opinion. Showing data about cases or deaths, on the other hand, may introduce room to argue, she said.

“The thing that’s unfortunate about math is that it has become political and ideological, and data bears that out,” Solomon said. “But if you go to science, which is not about ideology and not about political affiliations, the guidelines are clear and the practices are clear.”