The COVID-19 pandemic demands collective action: To slow the spread of the coronavirus, public health experts have urged all Americans to take part in social distancing measures.
As the virus lingers or resurges around the country, however, individuals and families have approached social distancing with differing degrees of consistency and concern. Conflicting social distancing standards have produced public confrontations and online shaming – not to mention disagreements among friends and family members.
We surveyed approximately 1,000 individuals about their own approaches to social distancing and their opinions of others’ social distancing efforts. Our findings reveal widespread worry about the actions of others, frequent arguments, awkward moments, and uncertainty behind expert recommendations. To learn how Americans are defining – or struggling to define – the rules of social distancing, keep reading.
Concerns and Critiques
Among our respondents, few dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19. Half were “extremely” or “very” concerned about the virus, while just 7% said they weren’t at all concerned. Whatever their own feelings, however, the majority of respondents identified at least one person in their own social circle who was not social distancing sufficiently.
The most common culprits were friends: 65% said a friend was slacking on their social distancing duties. Among baby boomers, three-quarters said a friend was not socially distancing safely. Given the severe risks of COVID-19 for older adults, this statistic seems especially concerning.
Many people also said their co-workers and immediate family members were not social distancing appropriately. For essential workers who commute to a physical location, a colleague’s lax social distancing standards could represent a real threat. Similarly, an irresponsible family member could elevate transmission risk for a whole household. Adolescents, for example, could imperil their parents by ignoring social distancing guidelines.
Roughly a third of respondents believed their neighbors were not socially distancing well enough. Some research suggests that most Americans believe they are superior to their neighbors when it comes to social distancing. Another 32% said that an extended family member was not social distancing enough. Generally, it seems people need not look far to find social distancing failures – including among those they hold dear.
Clearly, many respondents doubted others’ commitment to social distancing. But how did they rate their own performance, and which rules did they use to govern their social interactions? Across age groups, a majority of respondents said they were social distancing to “a great extent.” But what do such precautions look like in practice?
For one thing, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they had rules about their physical proximity to others, staying six feet away, on average. This number corresponds to recommendations provided by public health experts to limit transmission risk. On average, respondents also said gatherings should include no more than 12 people, though there are states that maintain even stricter limits.
On the subject of having guests over, however, our respondents were far less certain. Just 44% said they had firm rules about whom they would welcome inside. Family seemed to warrant more flexibility: 62% said they would have family over, whereas just 38% would invite a friend into their home.
For parents, questions about guests were complicated by their children’s social needs, with many kids longing for contact with their friends. Forty-four percent of parents said they’d let their children have friends over, and just 30% said they’d let their kids visit a friend’s home.
Outside of the home, respondents were equally likely to socialize with friends and family. Preliminary evidence suggests that being outdoors can reduce the infection risk of interpersonal contact as long as distance between people is kept. That being said, age still figured prominently in these decisions about socializing. For example, more respondents had rules regarding interacting with elderly family members than with children.
When someone’s social distancing standards differ from your own, are you willing to assert your preferences or challenge their behaviors? After all, it can be difficult to make such a request both politely and effectively, especially if the interaction risks offending a loved one or friend. In fact, 20% of respondents had experienced some kind of uncomfortable scenario relating to precautions during the pandemic.
A majority of respondents said they had declined hugs during the pandemic, and 41% had even turned down the embrace of a family member. Another 37% said they had asked someone they knew to wear a mask in their vicinity. Most respondents said they felt comfortable with taking these steps to assert their boundaries. However, slightly less respondents were comfortable with declining a hug from a family member (47%).
Understandably, far fewer people had asked a stranger to wear a mask: This type of request has led to plenty of heated confrontations featured in viral videos. Indeed, just 37% of respondents said they would feel comfortable making such a request. Interestingly, baby boomers were less likely than younger generations to ask either strangers or people they know to don a mask around them.
Fifty-one percent of respondents said they would feel comfortable confronting a family member about their lack of COVID-19 precautions. Many young people have found themselves initiating such conversations with older relatives, concerned that their elders are not taking the pandemic seriously enough. Meanwhile, just 46% said they would be comfortable confronting a friend about their lack of COVID-19 precautions, highlighting how awkward and unappealing these discussions can be.
Social Distancing Disagreements
If respondents expressed some trepidation about confronting family and friends over social distancing, their reservations may be justified. According to experts, clashes related to COVID-19 precautions can escalate quickly, fueled by feelings of uncertainty and frustration that this crisis has produced.
Among our respondents, a third said they had ceased communicating with at least one person due to their lackadaisical approach to COVID-19. Twenty-nine percent said they’d stopped interacting with a family member, while another 13% said they had cut off communication with a friend.
In a time defined by physical separation, conflicts about social distancing habits often play out on social media platforms. Indeed, some research indicates that Americans are “unfriending” others over social distancing disagreements, including family members.
For our respondents, online arguments weren’t all that rare. Twenty-nine percent had engaged in a social media spat over someone else’s social distancing habits, while 21% had an online altercation about their own social distancing habits.
Generally, younger people were more likely to engage in these social media arguments: Among millennial respondents, for example, nearly a third had had an altercation about someone else’s social distancing habits. While this could reflect the fact that young people are more likely to use social media overall, this statistic may also suggest millennials’ comfort using these platforms to voice their authentic concerns.
Holiday Pressures and Preparations
Though the pandemic’s uncertain trajectory poses planning challenges, many respondents had already considered an upcoming challenge: how to handle the holidays. Looking toward a time of year defined by social gatherings, what were respondents planning to do?
Many respondents had at least considered the holidays: 31% said they had discussed the subject, while 37% said they had decided not to have any in-person family gatherings. Additionally, 44% had at least one family member who would not be joining any family events due to COVID-19 concerns. These plans reflect the uncertain development timeline for a vaccine, which may or may not be publicly available by the holiday season.
On the other hand, many respondents felt that certain precautions would make them feel comfortable enough to gather with family for the holidays. The most popular option, especially among millennials, was asking all attendees to wear masks. Of course, if food is served, this precaution quickly becomes impractical. Thirty-eight percent said they’d feel comfortable if all family members got tested before the gathering.
Whatever their own reservations, 32% of respondents said family members were pressuring them to travel or attend gatherings for the holidays. The most common source of pressure was parents, though many also said their kids were pressuring them to make in-person holiday plans. However, 23% said that they had encouraged family to travel to them for the holidays, demonstrating the appeal of gathering with family even as a pandemic unfolds.
Comfort, Caution, and Compassion
As our findings demonstrate, there is hardly widespread agreement about what constitutes appropriate social distancing. Moreover, many of us are alarmed by the choices others are making, whether they be friends, neighbors or family members. These differences of opinion can result in serious conflict: Nearly a third of our respondents had cut off communication with friends whom they viewed as irresponsible.
Certainly, no one should be forced to discard their own social distancing standards in favor of a more relaxed approach. However, perhaps we can all benefit from additional empathy: In these difficult times, many of us are struggling to balance precautions with other needs and preferences. While others’ decisions can sometimes provoke anger, a compassionate approach is more likely to produce real dialogue and change.
Additionally, as we spend more time socially distanced, you deserve greater comfort and safety within your own home. Stannah is the industry leader in stairlift solutions, with more than four decades of experience in helping Americans enjoy their homes. Learn more about our products and process today to see how we can empower your independence at home.
We conducted a survey of 983 people on the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform. The average age of our respondents was 38.31, with a standard deviation of 12.20. The generational breakdown of respondents is below:
The Greatest Generation (Born 1927 or earlier): 1
Silent Generation (Born 1928 to 1945): 4
Baby Boomers: 114
Generation X: 284
Generation Z (Born 1998 to 2017): 28
This study did contain an attention-check question to help ensure respondents read questions in full. But still, there are limitations to these data, which rely on self-reporting. Data could be exaggerated or underreported, and it has not been weighted.
Fair Use Statement
We hope you’ll consider sharing this content with others, particularly those struggling with their own social distancing decisions. In these unprecedented times, it may help to know that others are confronting similar uncertainties. If you do choose to share our work, please do so only for noncommercial purposes. We ask that you also include a link back to this page when you share so that others can find and enjoy our full project.