Arguing with the coronavirus deniers in your life can backfire -- here's how to make them see the light

For those of us diligently practicing social distancing, it can be infuriatingly frustrating to encounter friends and loved ones who refuse to. There’s a strong temptation to lash out at them as selfish fools whose irresponsibility endangers us all. But doing so will backfire because, when people feel attacked, they get defensive and entrench in their position. Like it or not (not!), this is human nature.

Your civic duty, in addition to social distancing, is to talk to Covid-deniers in a way that has some chance of getting through to them. Here are some do’s and don’ts from the world of cross-partisan dialogue best practices that apply to the Covid-19 pandemic:

The Don’ts

  1. Don’t insult or label them, no matter how richly you believe they deserve it.  Words to avoid: stupid, dupe, denialist, Trump/Fox News cultist, selfish jerk
  2. Don’t blame or shame them for their past misconduct – what’s done is done.  Focus on the future.
  3. Don’t cast judgment on them or portray yourself as more virtuous—self-righteousness and judgment are extremely alienating
  4. Don’t bring up all of Trump’s outrageous misconduct—the downplaying, the lies, the xenophobia, the dismantling of our public health system, the mind-bogglingly negligent and chaotic mismanagement. These are all extremely important issues, but right now we have to laser focus on encouraging people to practice social distancing.
  5. Don’t turn this into a partisan issue—i.e. Democrats are doing the right thing, and Republicans aren’t. If you’re talking to a Republican, this will only reinforce their tribal allegiance.
  6. Don’t try to convince. This is the hardest and most counter-intuitive aspect of dialogue across lines of difference because, of course you want to convince! But when someone senses that you have a persuasive agenda, they get defensive and stop listening to you.

The Do’s

  1. Make a personal connection. Ask how they’re doing and feeling.
  2. Ask them if they’re trying to stay six feet away from people. Keep your facial expression neutral and use a calm voice tone with your voice going down at the end of your question instead of coming up.
  3. If they say they’re not social distancing, ask the following, with your voice coming down at the end and your tone as carefree as if you were asking if they think it will rain tonight.
  • “Do you have any degree of concern about catching the virus?”
  • “Do you have any friends or family members you’re worried about catching the virus?”
  • “When you read about how quickly it spread in Italy and how many people are dying there, do you believe it will be different here?”
  • “What would be hardest part for you about social distancing?”
  1. If they bring up conspiracy theories or express xenophobia, ignore and move on to your next question. When the crisis is over, you can revisit these troubling issues.
  2. As you listen to their responses, keep your facial expression neutral – no eye rolling, no squinting, no raised eyebrows, no sighing or snorting in disgust. (It might be best to have an old-fashioned phone call without seeing each other’s faces).
  3. Share your own point of view, beginning with a summary of what you understand their position to be, followed by any contradictions you’re aware of in their position, and your conclusion about why social distancing is vitally important. Again, refrain from casting blame or implying that you’re behaving in a superior manner. What you’re doing here is sharing your reasoning process underlying your subjective belief that social distancing is necessary. Yes, I know, as with climate change, the scientific consensus on social distancing to flatten the curve is overwhelming, and it feels wrong to express this reality subjectively. However, human nature being what it is, your only hope of getting through to the other person is to express yourself subjectively.
  4. To whatever extent is genuine for you, frame your opinion in terms that will resonate for the other person. If they’re conservative, talk about patriotism, and compare nurses to soldiers on the front lines. If they’re young and reckless, talk about Grandma. If they’re elderly or vulnerable, tell them how much you care and worry about them.

Here’s an example of a position statement:

It sounds like your take is that this isn’t really such a big deal and so you don’t want to coop  yourself up and miss out on being with your friends. I know what you’re saying – it’s really hard to stay put and there was some information put out early on that made it sound like maybe we didn’t have to worry about this too much.

At the same time, what I’m hearing now is that it’s crucially important to slow down the rate of infection so that our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed. When I look at what’s happening in Italy, where they didn’t shut things down soon enough and now have thousands of people dying alone with no visitors allowed near them, and then no funeral is even allowed, that to me is so horrifying that I would do anything to avoid having that happen here. I also feel a huge sense of responsibility to the nurses and doctors who are working overtime risking their lives to care for people, sometimes without even masks and gowns because there’s a shortage. For me, I see it as my patriotic duty to do what the Surgeon General says and make the job of health care workers easier, not harder. I think that if we all come together as a country and follow what the Surgeon General is saying, then we can get control over this virus. And I fear that, if we don’t, then we’ll have a level of death and suffering that is almost unimaginable.

If they want to argue, you can say, “It sounds like you’re not willing to social distance. I’ve shared my reasons for doing it, and I don’t want to try to convince you.” Leave it there. The other person isn’t likely to suddenly reverse themselves and commit to social distancing; all you can do is plant a seed that may or not take root and may or may not save a life.

Erica Etelson is a Covid-19 community mutual aid organizer, a certified Powerful Non-Defensive Communication™ facilitator, and the author of Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide (New Society Publishers, 2020).