How do I ask about this without making people feel judged?
October 7, 2022 1:08 AM   Subscribe

You: Are a person who still believes Covid poses a danger to you - either mortality or long term health effects - and have chosen to relax your Covid precautions. How do I ask about that in a way that won’t make you feel defensive?

I am very interested on a personal and empathetic level in understanding how people are making these extremely personal risk decisions for themselves. I genuinely from my heart believe that people who understand the science and their own risk profile are autonomous beings whose decisions I am not interested in second guessing. I’m also deeply interested in understanding how people reach the choices that they do and what factors - emotional, social, logistical - inform those decisions. Ultimately, at the end of the day, I’m interested because I love people and feel like greater understanding leads to loving people more deeply. But I have noticed that with everything as charged as it around Covid, asking anyone about the risk choices they’re making leads to pretty much instant defensiveness. I tend to be a very straightforward person, so I think my approach is probably just really setting people off, and not giving the impression I desire, which is of genuine interest.

Part of my interest is because I want to be able to support my friends. Some people feel resentful that they’ve had to make this choice, some feel freed, some feel fear, some feel quite neutral. And it means I’m not sure how to respond in a way that will feel supportive. If I express excitement for someone going to a concert and it turns out they’re not really excited about choice, for example. Or a friend going to Disney Land who feels like their family is forcing a choice they don’t want to make.

But they’re clearly weighing that in some way that allows them to choose to get onto a plane and take that risk. I would really like to be able to have the deeper conversation about what’s going on for them in that decision. How can I ask about it and not have them feel judged? I think a lot of the feeling comes from the fact that I have made a different choice for myself, and so there’s some preemptive feeling that I’m asking in a passive aggressive way not because I want to know them better.

Or another friend who is still having lingering impacts from their first covid infection but is choosing to take vacations and do things unmasked not because they’re feeling family pressure. I would really like to know more, and be able to have a more intimate conversation about that with them, but I can already tell it’s something that they don’t want to “upset” me with making a different choice than I am. I just want to know what changed for them and what they’re weighing more heavily in their life values. Because I don’t think my values are the only values people can have. I want to know what they’re wanting from life more than they’re wanting their health.

I think this is all made very difficult by the fact that society is having a real Health and Fitness Craze and people who aren’t hyper focused on their health already feel defensive all the time because of how much society acts like your health and your worth are intrinsically bound to each other. So, I so recognize that I am trying to ask a very difficult to navigate question! I’m pretty sure that even though I’ve written a whole wall of text here there are still going to be people who feel like I secretly want to judge people for their choices. I think my own deep sincerity and lack of guile can be very hard to get across in this environment of jaded and ironic communication.

So again, the people who will help me the most are people who still believe and think that covid poses a personal health risk and have chosen to relax their Covid precautions. If you don’t think you are at risk from covid, I appreciate you reading this question and will appreciate you moving on. I have no trouble having these conversations with people who don’t believe covid poses a risk, and they are more than happy to tell me all the reasons they’ve reached that conclusion.

(If you feel comfortable sharing how your mind has changed around your personal priorities that have led to your relaxing your relationship to precautions I would be extremely grateful to hear! I want to know, and care about how this is manifesting for people.)
posted by Bottlecap to Human Relations (47 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One way might be to not pose it as a question about them, but to ask their advice to help you figure out your own values.
posted by Zumbador at 1:29 AM on October 7, 2022 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I'm reading your post from the train station where I about to go see my parents for the first time since 2019. (Yes, I AM the only masked person in sight.) I'm not thrilled about it and I'm not otherwise changing my risk posture much, but for this one thing, I'm doing it. If that's the kind of thing you're interested in hearing about I'd be happy to dive into that choice for you here or in MeMail.

If someone I knew in my offline life wanted to talk with me about this a good first step would be not to jump to an assumption about excitement but to start with a more neutral "wow, how are you feeling about that?" You could follow up by doing more or less what you've done here, explaining that you're really interested in how people are making their decisions at this point in the pandemic and you promise not to challenge or judge but you're really curious, if I'd be willing to talk about it. If I generally believed you to be a decent and reasonable person, I would.
posted by Stacey at 1:35 AM on October 7, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I think sometimes there is a gap between someone's intellectual/rational judgment and their social judgment or actions, and that can be part of what you have to navigate. Like asking someone, "why didn't you study for that test when you knew you needed a good grade to pass the class?" If they don't feel like they have a "good" reason, or if the reason "sounds dumb", putting them on the spot and pressuring them to answer may feel like you're the one calling them dumb. ("I skipped studying to go drinking because I thought my friends wouldn't like me as much if I wasn't the fun one", say - often it takes lots of therapy and trust building for folks to be able to even vocalize these reasons, and even then they aren't going to want to offer their deep vulnerabilities to just anyone!)

Now, that's not always true; sometimes it is an intentional choice, something like "it's never going to go back to how it was before, this is just a new background risk like car crashes and cancer and I want to be part of society again." The more analytical might say something like "it was better for my mental health", and we'll all nod, but someone acting more by feel in the exact same situation might struggle to turn "I enjoy it and masking was stressing me out" into an acceptable 'rational' justification.
posted by Lady Li at 1:41 AM on October 7, 2022 [15 favorites]

I guess what I'm getting at is, if someone doesn't want to go deep with you, it's probably best to accept that. You can ask neutral surface questions that will probably touch on depth in their answers, if it sounds like something you're curious about for yourself - "how have you felt about getting back to traveling again? What is it like being out there unmasked, did it feel weird?" But doing therapy on other people is always going to feel a little invasive regardless of the honesty of your curiosity.
posted by Lady Li at 1:45 AM on October 7, 2022 [24 favorites]

I see a lot here about your feelings and desires and motivations and wishes.

I don't see anything here that makes somebody else's personal medical choices any of your business, or even a topic for polite conversation.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 2:48 AM on October 7, 2022 [53 favorites]

Best answer: I think whether or not people are going to feel judged depends on who you're talking to & not how you phrase it. Covid poses a huge threat to me but I still have to do things, so I try to do them as safely as I can. I'm the kind of person who thinks through these things consciously so it's easy for me to talk about them. I think it's harder for people when the decisions about what other people want from them are happening in their unconscious where they don't have much viability or insight into it.
posted by bleep at 3:06 AM on October 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hey, this is me! Everyone's different but I don't feel particularly defensive about it, so in my case I don't think you'd have to be particularly careful in enquiring as long as you're not, y'know, straight-up asking "but WHY would you make such a FOOLHARDY decision, you fool?" or "oh wow and you're still not back to normal, doesn't that make you feel weird, weirdo?".

So, say, "what was your decision-making process like?" or "how's that going? How are you feeling about it?", those would be fine. Maybe a suggestion that you're thinking about your own decision-making process and trying to inform it by understanding other people's.

For what it's worth, here are the factors that I'm consciously aware of that are playing into my easing-off - which is still leaving me more careful than almost (but not quite) all of my friends who aren't clinically extremely vulnerable:
  • Just, exhaustion. When everything kicked off I was in a part of the world that was genuinely without covid, and I lived a pretty normal life, so I have more energy left than a lot of people for taking care now that I'm back in the UK. But it's still been a long time and I'm running low!
  • My main personal worry has been long covid, and although I know a bunch of people who had or have it who got sick before being vaccinated, none of the dozens and dozens of people I know who've had covid after being vaccinated have had the really-long-term brain-fog long covid. I know there are still people reporting this, that the stats are still pretty bad, but it's just not a fear stricken into my heart in the same way
  • I don't really see why/how things might suddenly get better, so I'm kind-of switching to what do I want to live like for the... next few years? for ever? rather than how can I wait this out
  • On the other hand, I can see things suddenly getting worse - a very bad wave, a worse variant - and if this is maybe as good as it's gonna get for the next let's-not-think-about-that-too-closely years then hey, I might as well take advantage of it to have some friends round to dinner or go to a party and hang out in the garden or do a really interesting piece of work that has to be in-person
  • "okay so having had covid increases your chance of a bunch of bad health outcomes down the road... but so does eating meat? and living in a city? and I do those because I like them? hmmm well I'm not going to move to the country so uh hmmm"
  • I've been getting a better sense of what I really value and what risks feel worth taking for personal or professional reasons, and what just stresses me out and feels like a "waste" of risk

  • None of this is necessarily super-logical! And there's presumably a bunch of stuff going on I'm not aware of as well!
    posted by severalbees at 3:36 AM on October 7, 2022 [26 favorites]

    I don't think it's appropriate to ask people about medical issues unless they initiate the conversation. Imagine you had a friend with diabetes. Would you ask them about their eating habits? I hope not. But if they said "I've been struggling with my diabetes lately and might try X" then sure, ask questions. I'd treat COVID like that. Their inner motivations are by default not your business, but if they bring it up, that's a signal they want to talk about it.
    posted by emd3737 at 3:39 AM on October 7, 2022 [18 favorites]

    Best answer: I think people have such a high level of emotional fatigue around Covid Conversations that you may not get what you want. I'm very open about health in general, but very tired of discussing my family's risk tolerance and decisions.

    Plus, going into a conversation with another person, as if you're interviewing them for a school project, might set their teeth on edge a little.

    I think I would be open to a discussion if it was specific, respectful, complimentary and kind.

    Like, "I've noticed how your family seems to have worked to balance Covid safety with everyone's need to socialize, by having the gang all over to hang out on the porch together. I noticed that there was a trip to see family recently. I was thinking of taking a trip. How did you go about deciding to fly? What precautions did you take?"

    Probably all that windup wouldn't be necessary, but a specific question like that I'd say our bright line had been our child being eligible for vaccination, she's now able to mask for longer periods. Also we monitored case levels, we carefully considered for weeks, but a big push had been that her grands are quite old and had several big health issues in the last year. My husband and daughter were comparatively low risk and we sent them without me.
    posted by champers at 3:47 AM on October 7, 2022 [8 favorites]

    Best answer: For people who believe that COVID is a genuine threat to their health (and I am one of them, so I'm not using the term 'believe' to cast doubt, just to characterize that it's a subjective assessment), they have spent the past 2.5 years living under a tremendous amount of anxiety combined with watching friends, families, coworkers, and leaders demonstrate a callous disregard for the wellbeing of people like them. It's exhausting and in many cases traumatizing.

    The people I feel comfortable discussing this with now are people who have spent the past 2.5 years being supportive of me and my decisions. They've shown an interest in my decisionmaking not out of curiosity but because they have demonstrated that they will take concrete steps toward supporting me, like arranging outdoor social activities or requiring that people take rapid tests before an event when I'm invited.

    The information you're seeking—how people make decisions now—is intensely personal. You're not entitled to this information, especially when the justification you offer is that you find it "interesting."
    posted by telegraph at 4:15 AM on October 7, 2022 [29 favorites]

    I am that person and the answer is…I would not want you to ask in most circumstances.

    I’ve had this question before in some ways. After my daughter died a lot of people felt like they could ask questions about my pregnancy (“did you have an instinct“.) when I got pregnant again I was congratulated on my bravery and asked how high risk I was now.

    Here’s the thing. There were a few, very few, people who were genuinely trying to connect with me. But - and this is slightly conjecture but I feel my sense of it is correct - most of those questions were really people trying to distance themselves from the reality that sometimes bad things happen to people.

    I don’t mean they were clueless about risks and statistics. I mean somewhere on some level they were trying to impose a just world where I either had screwed up, missed something they could have known or done, or trying to kind of make me out as a strong person, stronger than them, because “god never gives us more than we can handle,” and they knew they couldn’t handle it so they wanted to confirm I was, you know, differently wired.

    Over time I have become compassionate to this response. Going through two more pregnancies knowing exactly how it feels not to bring that baby home is, in fact, unfun. Babies dying is unfun. Being a person who did pregnancy as right as possible after years is infertility and still having your baby die because of bad care is unfun. Sometimes, raising kids and loving them so much and knowing that you can lose them instantly to a car crash or to Covid or drugs is extremely unfun, and for me, I have access to the sounds of my daughter’s last breaths to refer to. (But I still don’t know what it would be like to lose an older child.) I don’t wish that on people. So if they need to throw up psychological barriers then ok.

    However, they are barriers.

    I don’t think you need more information. I think you are struggling with COVID’s existential threat. And it is one. The thing is, humans have been going in the rainforest to get the good fruit despite the tigers forever. We also have been putting huts around the fire and banding together to drive the tigers off forever. Both are true.

    So…the only way I would feel good about this conversation would be if you started with something like “I’m really scared of Covid. I’m scared of physical weakness, cognitive or physical disability, and death. I’m feeling alone in my fear because I see people doing X where all I can think of is X is unsafe. How do you handle your fear?”
    posted by warriorqueen at 4:18 AM on October 7, 2022 [72 favorites]

    Are you aware of and fully acknowledging your own biases in the question? Reading over the way you posed the questions, I hear (tho maybe not intended) a base-line “I think you are making the wrong decision, and I want to understand why you are making what I think is a wrong decision.” That rarely goes over well, and I also don’t think is a fair or honest ask.

    I like the suggestion for the general, “How are you feeling about that?” And then to not, under any circumstances, follow up with anything close to a, “…yeah, but what about THIS factor…?”

    If I am reading the underlying premise correctly - that you think these people are making a bad and irrational decision - then maybe you can find one person with whom you have built up sufficient trust and good will to pose the question to. And own that you are struggling to understand these choices, so that they at least have some context if you want to deep dive a little more into why they ordered their priorities differently than you think they should have.
    posted by Silvery Fish at 4:19 AM on October 7, 2022 [19 favorites]

    So. This question was asked before, more or less.

    I think if you read through the answers there, you may get some insight into both a) why people are relaxing their COVID precautions AND b) why people might not want to talk to you about it given your current framing.
    posted by geegollygosh at 4:28 AM on October 7, 2022 [6 favorites]

    And, to your actual question: seconding warriorqueen’s “people have been going into the jungle despite tigers forever” comment.

    To me, it is a mitigated risk, in the same way that driving in my car, or influenza pre-covid was, or hiking in the woods where I know deer ticks live is. I take precautions, and those precautions are based on amount of time in public and anticipated human density. I have upped my own health fitness regime, and I put precautions/buffers around my being in public and then me spending time with my health compromised friends - and let them make the final decisions on those buffers.

    I want to live in a community - my community - in the same way that I want to explore and spend time in the deep woods. There are smarter choices for doing both. And there have always been tigers.
    posted by Silvery Fish at 4:32 AM on October 7, 2022 [6 favorites]

    I think the answer is that you don’t ask unless you are specifically negotiating a face-to-face meeting and have questions about their current level of precaution, whether higher or lower than yours. Do you already have the sort of relationship where you are asking why they choose to live in an area with a high rate of wildfires or earthquakes, why they drive to work, why they eat a rare steak, or any of the other risk factors that exist in the world? Most people would consider those questions overly-invasive and judgy, whether their level of precaution is higher, lower, or the same.

    I think the closest you can get is to share your own experience and see if they feel like sharing in turn. “My family had a big reunion this summer, I felt so torn between worrying that I was either harming them by accident by finding out later I was sick, or harming them intentionally by choosing not to see them.”
    posted by tchemgrrl at 5:07 AM on October 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

    I suspect too many people use such questions as pretext for criticism, for you to be able to get answers easily if that’s what you truly desire. The repeated advice to frame it as helping you make your own decisions, is probably your best bet — but also, if it’s mere curiosity on your part I’d urge you to leave this subject alone. It may well leave people feeling judged no matter how careful you try to be, so it could be better for everyone to leave the itch unscratched.
    posted by breakfast burrito at 5:44 AM on October 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

    I am immunocompromised, and I agree that you just don't get to ask. Your curiosity does not entitle you to information about personal health decisions. There are some friends I might discuss this with as I'm making decisions, but in that case, I'd be the person bringing it up.

    I did go see my grandchildren over the summer even though I knew there was some risk. I had to ask myself exactly what I was staying alive for. Like - yes, I might live longer if I never have any social life again, but do I want to base all of my life decisions around how I am most likely to keep breathing? I am also contemplating traveling to Europe in the spring. If I only think about not getting COVID, then I absolutely should not go. But I have a cancer that's considered incurable, and this may be my last chance to see these places. I am also contemplating expanding my social life a bit. In terms of COVID, it may not be the wisest decision. But again, I have to ask what life is for. Now some people are planning to just isolate forever, and I certainly don't judge that decision. These are very difficult, very personal, life-or-death decisions. I don't want to have to deal with someone asking me about them.

    I've also thought a lot about how the late twentieth century in the US was weird in terms of health. For most of human history, life entailed a much higher risk of death from some infection and people just lived with it.

    A friend of mine died recently of a horrible, debilitating disease. He was traveling quite a bit during COVID, which I thought seemed kind of nuts - I now think he probably knew how bad his prognosis was but had chosen not to share that with me. That was his right. And I was right not to bring up COVID - he was a grown-up. He knew the risk and had made a decision. When your immunocompromised friend says, "I'm going on vacation to the Bahamas," the answer is, "That sounds fun. Have a great trip."

    So basically, people dealing with serious illnesses get to decide what they will and will not share, and it's not OK to ask them about these very personal, very difficult decisions.
    posted by FencingGal at 5:47 AM on October 7, 2022 [32 favorites]

    I want to know what they’re wanting from life more than they’re wanting their health.

    Definitely don't express this because it does sound somewhat paternalistic/condescending.
    posted by tiny frying pan at 5:52 AM on October 7, 2022 [35 favorites]

    This stuff is just so fraught right now, and I can tell you from experience that family stuff is extremely complex and pressure-y, looking at it from both the "I want to do more things you view as risky" and "I want to be careful and not have either of us catch this more often than absolutely necessary" perspectives. If someone I wasn't close with wanted to pry into that, I'd be pretty put off, honestly. If you're close enough to me you probably know some of the details. If you're not close with me, I really don't want to air my dirty laundry, or talk about it, or stress about it.
    posted by Alterscape at 5:59 AM on October 7, 2022

    Yeah, you’re making some assumptions about other people’s mental models that aren’t valid. I don’t see avoiding Covid as the most important way or only way to guard my health. It’s not “other stuff versus HEALTH YES OR NO,” it’s other stuff including health and other responsibilities and social connection vs. yet more stuff including health and different responsibilities.

    You’ll learn more if you can maintain a curious and open mind. “I worry about this a lot…how are you thinking about it?”
    posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:03 AM on October 7, 2022 [10 favorites]

    This sounds less like a COVID question than a friend interaction question--your friends are doing things that sound exciting, you congratulate them, and then they express worry about COVID. Then you wonder why they're doing it if they're so worried.

    The only two options here are to ask them directly (and yes, you are probably going to get a grumpy response because they are asking for sympathy, not questioning) or to assume that there are factors involved that outweigh any fear of infection. Asking people here won't substitute for the first option, but I would suggest taking the second path unless your friends are acting very apprehensive and regretful about their choices. In other words, trust their judgment.
    posted by kingdead at 6:05 AM on October 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

    I'm immunocompromised, and I've spent a huge chunk of this pandemic being really resentful at people who are acting like they do not care. I had a colleague who was traveling willy-nilly and I had to mute him on social because I couldn't stand seeing all of his travel photos. Then he died. Not of COVID, it turns out he had a terminal illness that he had not disclosed to all of us at work. Suddenly I gained clarity over all of his traveling and what I thought was his really insensitive behavior throughout the pandemic.

    We can't know what's going on for other people and it's not okay to ask unless they want to talk to us about it. I'm sad that I spent a lot of time really having negative feelings about this colleague, because now I really miss him and he's gone. It's not really my business why other people aren't behaving in ways that I'm behaving or in ways that I wish they would behave. We can't control what other people do and sometimes we can't understand it.
    posted by twelve cent archie at 6:28 AM on October 7, 2022 [24 favorites]

    I want to know what they’re wanting from life more than they’re wanting their health

    You'll run into two problems here. For one, these are highly personal choices, often with significant emotional components. A lot of people would struggle to articulate their reasons. Even if they can articulate their reasons, there is so much judgment attached to these kinds of choices, that most people will deflect unless they are talking to a very close, very trusted person who could be relied on to be supportive.

    In addition, human beings make choices with adverse health effects all the time, they always have and always will. Why would making decisions about how they are going to live in a world where Covid exists and is here to stay be any different?

    Would you feel the need to ask people that question, who:
    - are outside a healthy weight range
    - don't take regular light exercise
    - smoke
    - drink alcohol
    - sun bathe
    - only eat white food or junk food or live off coffee and sweets
    - don't get vaccinated/don't engage with screening and general preventative healthcare (by choice, realising some people have no access)
    posted by koahiatamadl at 7:00 AM on October 7, 2022 [10 favorites]

    Best answer: This would be a conversation I'd be happy to have with a good friend, where we talk about our feelings and how someone's recent trip went and so on. But if it isn't a close enough relationship that you both routinely share fairly intimate details like your partner's health conditions, you aren't close enough to be having this kind of deep conversation about risk, frankly.

    That's different from a "Man, that trip to Disney sounds great! Hey, what was it like flying? We've been considering a trip and were wondering, are people still wearing masks at all?" that you could have with a stranger at a bar, since it is just about surface stuff and easily answered without sharing anything personal.

    I want to know what they’re wanting from life more than they’re wanting their health.

    That is formulation that doesn't match how many people are approaching pandemic life decisions and could easily come off as accusatory or offensive. It's not as simple as "wanting things from life" vs "wanting your health" -- isolation has both costs and benefits, and for many people the costs are now outweighing the benefits; conversely, doing social things has costs (like increased risk of covid exposure) but also major benefits, like better mental health and happiness. People aren't so much throwing away their health for fleeting pleasures, as they are making choices about balancing risks and rewards -- their choices may not be the same as yours, perhaps because they have very different risk assessments, but it's a personal balancing act and easy to make someone feel like you are judging them for not making certain choices.

    Now, that's not always true; sometimes it is an intentional choice, something like "it's never going to go back to how it was before, this is just a new background risk like car crashes and cancer and I want to be part of society again."

    For what it is worth, this is pretty much how I am thinking about it currently -- there is now a new background risk that will be there probably for the rest of my life, so I need to make long term choices about how to live (vs a short term choice to wait things out). I'm still calibrating what that means and what things I am and am not comfortable doing, and I expect that to be a continued balancing act for a long time to come.
    posted by Dip Flash at 7:21 AM on October 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

    Yeah unfortunately even if you have only the very purest nonjudgmental intentions they are unlikely to come across as such, except to your very, very closest friends.

    Even framing this as, "I want to know what they’re wanting from life more than they’re wanting their health" is basically a judgment, unless somehow you've never ever expressed as part of your whole deal that health is an important, critical value for you.

    The way toward the answers you seek is inward. Like as not, you're probably not a paragon of perfect consistency yourself; interrogate the choices YOU make that you know are suboptimal, and why you make them. Because they make sense to you, right? Because they solve an immediate problem, even if they potentially cause a longer term one, or vice versa. Because you only have so many hours in the day, or in your life. Because the cost of doing the more perfect thing is simply unaffordable. Because thing X is just infinitely more important to you than thing Y, even if other people wouldn't understand that. Because you're simply too tired from everything else in life to do this one more thing.

    To piggyback on the tiger analogy, humans have been walking into the jungle despite tigers for so long that mostly, they don't worry about the tigers, they have the tigers handled. Now, there's a snake. The snake is new, and we're not entirely sure what the snake is all about yet, so we're a bit keyed up about going into the jungle. But someone's gotta get the fruit. And eventually, the snake becomes just another tiger.
    posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:40 AM on October 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

    Anyway though the answer to "what am I wanting from life more than my health" is like, almost everything, honestly. My health and longevity are simply not very important to me; I do not care to live long, at all. I maintained strict protocols during the high crisis of pre-vax and during the initial omicron surge because I don't like to be an asshole, but for my own safety my standards are pretty low.

    And while I obviously realize that any human is at risk from covid, because I'm not delusional, I also know that proportionally speaking my risk from covid is not outside of what I'm comfortable with, because I know the kind of risks I take regularly. It's almost certainly more dangerous to get into a car with someone who's had a few drinks and I have been doing that for literally my entire life.

    Finally, I have had covid. And once you fight the tiger, it's just not as scary, even though it's still a tiger.
    posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:00 AM on October 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

    Response by poster: To clarify: this question is about how to talk to my closest friends who I do regularly have conversations about some of the things listed above as “if you aren’t talking about X you aren’t close enough for this conversation.” I’m certainly not thinking it’s any of my business to ask random acquaintances. As you can tell from the responses here, I do have a communication gap (which extends far beyond Covid related issues) that leads me to asking for guidance on how to approach or engage with touchy subjects. For example, reading into it that there’s judgement in asking why someone is valuing something else. That seems like a neutral question to me, but I am aware it is not. Which is why I am asking for help in how to approach it.
    posted by Bottlecap at 8:30 AM on October 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

    I want to know what they’re wanting from life more than they’re wanting their health.

    I am a person who has lived an incredibly conservative pandemic and am still doing so in a whole new way after a significant life change, but even to me this is a very oversimplified way of thinking. Hopefully most of the people you know making these choices are as vaccinated and boosted as local guidelines allow, and they are taking precautions that we know now are pretty good at mitigating risk.

    I think you're also underestimating the legitimate need underlying some of the "choices" you see, and also underestimating the effect it has had on most people to see and understand that nobody is coming to save us. So many of us especially cautious people did so in part to lower community risk, and the official administrative response has been a hearty fuck you and your efforts because the only thing that matters is tHe eCoNoMyyyyy. Everyone with children has been shoved into a constant-exposure situation where the only alternate choices are jail or a new career in education. People - those who ever had any accommodations in the first place - are losing their workplace mitigation accommodations. After two and a half years, people NEED to get their medical/dental care and take care of family stuff and go into a bank/lawyer/accountant to complete legal crap. And while I agree it would be best if people did this as carefully as possible, but yes humans are not meant to be shut in their homes for years and they do need to be able to leave sometimes and do even non-essential things for emotional health reasons.

    I can't particularly blame someone in that situation deciding fuck it, I will risk my life to fly to see my mom. Or clearly they're going to kill me eventually so I'm going to go see Sicily first. Or I guess I'd rather die of Lollapalooza than getting a filling from my conspiracy-theorist dentist.

    Do you feel a need to ask people this about using automotive transport? Or about living a stressful life with poor sleep? Living near a factory or train tracks or highway? Being poor? Working with populations at high risk for other communicable diseases that can also cause lifelong health problems? And these kinds of risks are often extremely unavoidable for highly-immunocompromised people, most of whom are doing the best they can w/r/t COVID but aren't able to enjoy any sort of public health protections because tHe eCoNoMyyyyy and an uncaring/forced to contribute to risk/deliberately misinformed majority.

    Most of us can't live on health alone. We are all making and being forced to make risk trade-offs all the time. Everyone is constantly having to decide where they will (or are allowed by circumstances to) draw the line, based on available data (that is shitty and manipulated and deliberately obscured by the authorities).

    It's a very very hard decision process, much more complex than you're giving credit for.
    posted by Lyn Never at 8:32 AM on October 7, 2022 [10 favorites]

    In conclusion, I think the closest you can come to fairly discussing this with a close friend is asking with actual interest what went into any specific decision, but you still need to be asking with the assumption they are an intelligent person making good choices. It's entirely possible their answer is "I'm just sick of not doing X" and you need to be ready to embrace that as "my friend believes the harm of not doing it is greater than the risk/harm of doing it and I trust them to know themselves."

    For me, if someone is doing stuff I patently think is bad and wrong, on a regular basis, I just conclude our values are not similar enough for us to be terribly close.
    posted by Lyn Never at 8:37 AM on October 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

    Best answer: I want to know what they’re wanting from life more than they’re wanting their health.

    There are a lot of people responding who are not high risk. And if you're not high risk, your answers are going to be fully, and understandably, quite different. Your experience is different. That's okay. But it's so frustrating to see lower risk people, again and again, making so many assumptions about what it's like to be high risk.

    When you're super high risk, life vs. health is PRECISELY how doctors talk about covid. In January, my mother, a widow in her 70s -- who has supported me for every surgery, every recovery, seven years of my grappling with end stage renal -- was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and completed a radical double mastectomy just three weeks later. This was at the height of Omicron.

    I'm a transplant patient with a history of severe neutropenia, which means that on top of being on a pile of immusuppression drugs, my white blood cells like to completely and suddenly die off with no notice. It means covid has been a minefield. Mastectomies are such a personal thing and I'm the only daughter, so it made sense for me to be the primary support, allowing her some comfort and dignity during recovery. So when I called the transplant team to see what precautions I should be taking when I went to stay with my mom during her recovery, the answer was NO. No, you cannot go see her in the hospital. No, you cannot go to her home. No, you cannot help her, change her bandages, make up her bed, make sure she's eating, bring her meds, sit beside her, do any of the things she has done for you. Not even in an N95, not even in a wind tunnel of HEPA filters. No.

    The nurse heard my panic on the phone and softened: Look, this is one surgery. You taking precautions now means you can be there for her in the future.

    So Bottlecap using this this vs that framework for the question, it absolutely rings true. You have to choose. And for what it's worth, I did make a choice for my mom: I didn't go to the hospital, but I absolutely did go to her home and help her and change the bandages and make her bed and make her comfortable every day, and we took every precaution and it was fraught at first but okay. To keep me safe, she didn't let anyone else near her while she was recovering at home.

    To answer your question, Bottlecap, because it's personal and because I've spent a lot of time feeling defensive explaining my isolation to people who mean well but can't possibly understand because their own risk and experience are so different, I think I would only welcome this question from someone who has been living through this with 1) a similar risk level and 2) has been taking similar precautions. Which, in reality, is no one I know IRL except a few people here on metafilter.

    And come to think of it, I would only welcome this question if the asker was considering a change in their activities/exposure and was actively looking for information to support a decision. I wouldn't want to be asked just for the sake of conversation.
    posted by mochapickle at 8:37 AM on October 7, 2022 [18 favorites]

    One thing that's been helpful for me to remember is that humans are *completely terrible* at objectively evaluating risk, and will come up with all sorts of elaborate ex post facto logical justifications for why they've made a certain choice (and will get defensive about it) when it was instead almost certainly equally influenced by a bunch of beneath-the-surface-of-consciousness cognitive processes. This article, from mid-2020, is a pretty good roundup in the context of the pandemic.

    (And remember that this is probably just as true for you and people you agree with as it is for people who you don't agree with.)
    posted by pullayup at 8:50 AM on October 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

    As you can tell from the responses here, I do have a communication gap (which extends far beyond Covid related issues) that leads me to asking for guidance on how to approach or engage with touchy subjects. For example, reading into it that there’s judgement in asking why someone is valuing something else.

    Well, on the one hand if you truly do ask these kinds of questions about everything, then your friends already know this about you and are comfortable with it. So they probably won't mind and you are in the clear.

    As a reminder though, how you can approach touchy subjects can be "I'd like to ask you a touchy question, is this an okay time?" and then watch them/listen to them to see/hear what their response is, both verbal and non-verbal. Are they hesitating, tensing up - changes in tone, tension in their shoulders. (FYI this is one reason in-person communication can go better.)

    I don't think you have a communication gap though, I think you have an empathy gap. Your version of empathy is "I don't get this" -> I will grill/drill down with the person -> I may or may not understand them -> Then I will empathize.

    But acting with empathy (rather than the process of developing it) is to go something like "I don't quite get this, but I can think of an analogy and consider how to be present with my friend." A quick professional example is sometimes I have parents coming in upset about routine billing cycles. I am the kind of person who has almost never approached a credit limit on a card in her life and haven't bounced too many payments (only where a card was cancelled).

    But I can still say "wow, it's a tough month for you," or whatever because my goal isn't to understand People Who Do That, it's just to make the transaction pleasant. If I want to understand, I go ask people that are not currently in a transaction with me.

    So I would really think about what empathy and connection with your friends means for you and if it is working in the context of those unique relationships. By the way, you should receive this too. They don't have to understand your protocols to both adhere to them and to have empathy for you.
    posted by warriorqueen at 9:02 AM on October 7, 2022 [5 favorites]

    So I reread your question after your update to make sure I hadn't missed anything. I never thought you were asking random strangers.

    asking anyone about the risk choices they’re making leads to pretty much instant defensiveness.

    Looking at this from your original post, I feel like the answer is here. When you've tried asking people, you've gotten defensiveness. You are hoping that this is because there's a flaw in the way you ask, but the flaw really is in the question itself. There is not going to be a way to ask it that will not upsetting people because even if you don't intend to judge people, and I completely believe that is not your intention, the judgment is inherent in the question.

    As an immunocompromised person, I am scared and I'm really, really tired of being scared. And I am especially tired of being scared now that I'm watching my friends going back to their normal lives (which is totally OK - the world shouldn't stop for me - it's just tough to watch). So any decision I make that involves raising my risk a bit is going to be really, really fraught and emotionally difficult for me. If you are not living with that, I think it's hard to imagine what it's like.

    There are things about this I don't even really discuss with my closest friends. As wonderful and kind as they are, they can't fully get what it's like. This is why I have a therapist - to talk about things I don't want to talk to friends about. I would not want my friends trying to understand by asking me about my decision-making process. If I want to discuss it with them, I will bring it up.

    The friends who have touched me so much they have made me cry have not done so by asking questions about my decisions but my volunteering to make things easier or safer for me. These are the people who have offered to run errands or have said we'll meet outside and wear masks - just tell us what your doctor says you need.

    I think it falls under the same category as you don't make comments about people's bodies and you don't ask women if they're pregnant and if a person has cancer, you don't ask them questions that are designed to figure out how they got it (did you smoke [for lung cancer patients]? or - my favorite when my brother died - did he live near a nuclear power plant?). People of course do make these comments and ask these questions, but they are offensive in themselves and it's not a matter of wording.

    So I think you are asking for a kind way to ask a question that is not kind. And that doesn't exist.
    posted by FencingGal at 9:17 AM on October 7, 2022 [12 favorites]

    Best answer: I haven't read all of the responses, but what I have read confirms one point I'll make, which is that no matter how carefully you phrase something, you can't perfectly respond to have people are going to react. Especially when discussing a topic that has generated many feelings of judgement in society at large, like COVID. I agree with Zumbador that the best way to do this is to acknowledge any uncertainty you might have around this - if you can admit that you see the potential for a range of responses to COVID, or can communicate that you understand this is a difficult decision we are all forced to make, day by day, then I think your friends will feel more comfortable sharing their own decision-making process.

    You may also enjoy this episode of the podcast First Person. In interviews a man who is very high-risk, about his decision to start going on cruise ships again. It delves into his decision making process on this in detail.
    posted by coffeecat at 9:24 AM on October 7, 2022 [3 favorites]

    You really can’t imagine what people value more than health? Like, there are a lot of things people value. Obviously among them, a social life, fun and travel. That’s your answer. Your values are different. There’s no secret key to making it make sense to you, your brains are wired differently.
    posted by stoneandstar at 10:17 AM on October 7, 2022

    I think it's reasonable to ask friends about what their COVID comfort levels/ boundaries are especially in the context of potentially meeting up with them. E.g. Do you want to meet up masked or unmasked? Are hugs on or off the table? This is really another form of consent and others don't owe you any justification for why they are setting their boundaries the way they are.

    Lots of people are tired and burnt out with COVID as a talking point. That being said, you can make the question less intrusive to others who are interested in having this discussion with you, by reframing it to the group level. E.g.

    -"Friend, from your perspective, why do you think people are making the choices they are with regards to COVID precautionary measures?

    -"Friend, do you think society has any obligation to consider the needs of immunocompromised when making COVID-related decisions?"

    -"What is the role of government at this stage in the pandemic?" etc.
    posted by oceano at 10:48 AM on October 7, 2022

    You may also consider trying to learn about the same sort of decision making question in an area less immediately topical, if understanding the behavior of others is a general thing you have trouble with.

    Like if you also struggle to understand why people drink or smoke, or why "knowing the research on exercise" doesn't make everyone schedule in half an hour of moderate daily exercise, or why people drive fast or check their texts while driving even though it's dangerous, or the appeal of a roller coaster, or why people eat fried food and even serve it to their loved ones, those are areas that (a) you might be able to usefully explore with a therapist and (b) have a lot of public health and psychology research and you might be able to learn more about how other folks make those intuitive risk judgments in practice (and how your own mind may be different).

    (There was an AskMe recently by someone who didn't understand other people's COVID decision making, but also didn't drive as part of their overall risk strategy, and so I'm wondering if you find yourself similarly an outlier in many areas rather than just this one.)
    posted by Lady Li at 10:58 AM on October 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: Regarding your friend who is feeling pressure about going on a family trip, you can say something like "That sounds like a tough situation. Do you want to talk about it?" If no, then change the subject. And if this friend wants to talk, then listen. (You can even ask, "Do you want my input on that or do you just want to vent?"). This way you can honor your friend while minimizing the risk of turning the conversation from "about your friend" to "about you."
    posted by oceano at 11:07 AM on October 7, 2022 [2 favorites]

    I want to know what they’re wanting from life more than they’re wanting their health.

    I mean, this is the problem right here - that is a HUGE assumption that you're making about a) the risks of covid and b) how people weigh risks and benefits in all sorts of situations, not just covid. And the judgement is obvious as well.

    Would you be as interested in having a long discussion about why people drive cars? Why they stop rear-facing their child at 2 instead of 4? Why they eat McDonalds?
    posted by haptic_avenger at 6:16 PM on October 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

    You might benefit from watching the UCSF monthly Covid-focused Grand Rounds which you can find on YouTube.

    UCSF (University of California San Francisco) is one of the premier research and training medical centers in the world. The Chair of the Dept of Medicine, Dr Bob Wachter, is quoted in basically *every* article about Covid in San Francisco newspapers. He also happens to have a wife who has long Covid and a son who had Covid, so he has massive personal and professional experience in the area. He is also a very sweet and personable man.

    In the monthly Covid rounds, he talks with internationally acclaimed experts in infectious diseases, epidemiology, etc. They discuss where the science is at, but he also always asks them the questions you are posting. Do you eat indoors? How will you decide when it's safe enough for you to unmask inside? What are you telling your family, children, grandchildren about these risks? The discussions are fascinating.

    He has his own criteria having to do with case test positivity rates, which is interesting, but the most interesting part is to listen to these world-class scientists and practitioners talking about what they think, what they've learned from past mistakes in communicating, and how they are going to manage their own risks.
    posted by jasper411 at 9:14 PM on October 7, 2022

    Response by poster: “Would you be as interested in having a long discussion about why people drive cars? Why they stop rear-facing their child at 2 instead of 4? Why they eat McDonalds?”

    Yeah, sure, why not? Those resemble conversations I have with my friends. I am beginning to suspect that some of the disconnect is that I am disabled and so are most of my friends. So we talk about health and decisions around our health and what we value and prioritize even if it might negatively impact us with pretty frequent regularity. Maybe this is not common in non-disabled spaces? Regardless, those conversations have some pretty well trod grooves for how to discuss them and the different choices we make that don’t exist yet for covid. Those conversations don’t tend to trend defensive.

    I think the real answer that I am seeing through all of this is that there’s not an answer yet. We haven’t had enough of these conversations to know how to approach them in the same ways that we approach other similar concepts. And while applying some of those same principles is beneficial, it doesn’t have the same hooks of trust built in. We trust that people are making the right decisions for themselves around the topics that people have mentioned (by “we” I mean the disabled spaces I am a part of), and I think maybe we’re all too raw from having been abandoned over the last couple years to have those same trust anchors.

    It was also very illuminating to me to see the assumptions about me made by the people answering. Like a lack of imagination or empathy when I am literally in therapy for having too much of both 😂. I find that very helpful and instructive to know.
    posted by Bottlecap at 11:37 PM on October 7, 2022 [4 favorites]

    OP, if you’re having this talk regularly, and are confused about it, it’s this: your interlocutors feel obliged to perform a politically-correct level of COVID concern in conversation with you, but don’t feel obliged to live their lives that way. Get a few glasses of wine in them they’ll be telling you it’s no worse than a cold or that they think long COVID is just a new excuse for malingering along with CFS.
    posted by MattD at 6:40 AM on October 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

    Disabled circles, for me, seems like you would already have these tools, and you have them for asking "as an immunocompromised person, how do you balance the risks of ...", so if you're upsetting people it may be by giving the impression you think COVID is the first such risk they've had to consider.

    An uncle of mine is immunocompromised, and when he first developed the condition and in the year or two to follow we had many of these conversations about his safety and comfort level going to movies, going to the mall or not, having guests or houseguests or going to the beach weekend. He and his wife resumed going on cruises a couple years after, for example, and although I'm not close enough to ask without implying he needs to justify his choices to me, if your friends are close enough to talk about that, they should be close enough to add "how are you changing your behavior now to include COVID risk, compared to the before times?"
    posted by Lady Li at 10:14 AM on October 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

    Frankly, a lot of people have given up on trying to stop getting it. They are tired of trying to not get it, they want to go back to normal FEELING even if there is no hope in hell of ever going back to real normal again, they are sticking their heads in the sand/being hopeful, whatever. They are out of care/energy/fear to keep trying to not get it. People can even burn out of being afraid all the time.

    I don't feel like there's much point in having a conversation with anyone about how they feel like that. I'm not there yet, but virtually everyone else around me is, I'm outnumbered, there's nothing to be done.
    posted by jenfullmoon at 3:07 PM on October 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

    > > “Would you be as interested in having a long discussion about why people drive cars? Why they stop rear-facing their child at 2 instead of 4? Why they eat McDonalds?”

    > Yeah, sure, why not? Those resemble conversations I have with my friends.

    FYI many people would consider such topics of discussion to be rather rude, especially when personally directed. (Not just "why do people eat McDonalds" but "why do YOU eat McDonalds".)

    Your frame of reference seems quite different. It seems your friends are fine with personally directed "rude" questions. This is a significant difference from the norm as I understand it, but of course there's nothing inherently wrong with it! With the gigantic caveat that you should not ask such questions of just anyone, but rather only of these particular people whom you know well and who all agree with you that such discussions are not rude.

    But if you already plan to limit yourself to your small group, I find myself wondering: why did you post this Ask? Where's the disconnect here? You claim that your friends are all fine with this type of questioning and would not take it personally... so what is causing you to doubt and hesitate and check with us?
    posted by MiraK at 7:42 AM on October 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

    Best answer: Once you bring a shared disability context into play, it does seem like a little less of a potentially rude conversation, and more of one where it can be assumed you have concerns in common and are trying to figure things out. I think the less it sounds like you are trying to either expose flaws in other people's logic or ask for more personal information than they want to share-- like what are their social or family needs that make them want to travel-- then the more willing people will be to engage with you.

    It strikes me that the framing of these questions sometimes undeservedly puts people on the defensive because people so often do it in a disingenuous way. Like the manager at work who is always saying, "Walk me through your process," when they really just think what you did sucks and want you to change it. That's very low level and transparent but I think if you use wording like that you may come across as less than genuine. I think Andy Rooney has a lot to answer for too. "Why do people like to eat canned spaghetti?" He never thought there was a real reason. He just thought it was a ridiculous thing to do. So, yeah, you can ask in ways that are more likely to make people trust you, like to explain your purpose and what you personally have on the line.
    posted by BibiRose at 9:05 AM on October 9, 2022

    Best answer: For me you'd start this by asking whether I want to have that kind of conversation.

    "I know this is a sensitive topic so I want to check in before bringing it up. I'm not interested in second guessing or comparing. I’m just interested in understanding how people reach the choices that they do about pandemic safety. It helps me think through my own choices. I know you think a lot about this so I'd love to know more about how your thoughts are evolving, if you're open to sharing."
    posted by rockyraccoon at 9:30 PM on October 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

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