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'What Real Friends Do': How to Navigate Tough Conversations About COVID-19

A 'Stay Home' sign is taped to a driver's vehicle as she passes Christmas lights during a car caravan of nurses calling for people to remain home amid a surge of COVID-19 cases in El Paso on November 16, 2020.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
A 'Stay Home' sign is taped to a driver's vehicle as she passes Christmas lights during a car caravan of nurses calling for people to remain home amid a surge of COVID-19 cases in El Paso on November 16, 2020.

As it gets colder, and harder to gather outdoors, some of Kenzie Billings' conversations with her loved ones are feeling a bit more fraught.

"It's felt frustrating at times. You know, you can feel energy from people in terms of wanting to be together," she said.

A 'push and pull' of competing concerns

Billings, 29, lives in Portland, Oregon. Her pregnant sister has been taking social distancing rules very seriously, she said, but others in the family are more eager to get together indoors.

She said it's especially hard to navigate these negotiations without being face to face.

"So there's a lot of push and pull there in terms of, 'Okay, where are my boundaries?' And then exerting those boundaries is actually really hard, with the people that you love," Billings said.

Hospitals in many parts of the country are reporting another surge in coronavirus patients. That follows a Thanksgiving holiday where many families gathered despite public health recommendations.

The spike in COVID-19 numbers is colliding with colder weather and the holidays, forcing many Americans like Billings to have difficult conversations with friends and family about whether and how to gather.

Communicating through misinformation

For Desiree Middleton, 50, in Los Angeles, the pandemic has also been hard on some relationships. Middleton said the swirl of misinformation around the coronavirus has complicated discussions about the need for mask-wearing and social distancing, and she's even lost some friends.

"I have people that don't believe the virus is real, they feel like it's a government conspiracy," Middleton said. "These are friends that I've known since middle school. One friend, I was in her wedding."

The denialism she's observed among some old friends is particularly painful, Middleton said, because she's had family members who've been sick with the virus.

Connecting, creatively and safely

Even for a physician, asking loved ones to wear masks and stay distant from each other can be difficult, said Dr. Tista Ghosh, an epidemiologist in Colorado and the state's former chief medical officer. Ghosh said she's had difficult conversations in her own family, and she advises keeping the focus on the desire to keep everyone safe and healthy.

"One of the things that I think is important to acknowledge up front is that you care about them and you don't want anything to happen to them, and it's not just about you," Ghosh said. "I think putting that out there up front, especially with older parents, is important."

Ghosh advises looking for safer ways to connect, like eating a holiday meal separately and then going for a walk together, or even meeting up in different cars for a tailgate party.

Alise Bartley, a counseling professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, said offering creative alternatives can help soften the impact of conversations about social distancing.

"Is it about saying no, or is it about trying to figure out what to say yes to?" Bartley said. "Based on each person's level of comfortability, how do we discern, 'Yes, I can do this, but I can't do this?'"

'What real friends do'

The pandemic, and the social distancing it's necessitated, have strained some social connections. But they've forced others to become deeper and more genuine.

"In this specific time, it feels so much more important that we have those conversations," said Thomas Davidson, 18, who lives near Philadelphia with his parents and two siblings. "When we see the political headlines; when we see the news about COVID, it feels like these are conversations we can't just push to the side and focus on our family dynamic. It feels like these are conversations that need to be had."

Davidson said it's been frustrating to witness some of his family members' skepticism about the need for social distancing, but the stress of the pandemic also made him appreciate them more.

"It can be hard, but at the end of the day they're still family," he said.

For Middleton, in Los Angeles, it's also been a time to communicate more honestly with some of her friends.

"I think before the pandemic, a lot of us were just on surface-level friendships," she said. "And now we're actually sharing the deep, painful parts of our lives with each other, and saying things that last year I was like, 'Oh I never would have told you this, because I'd never want you to think this about me.'"

Middleton recently had to turn down an invitation to visit another close friend because she didn't feel safe getting on a plane – and her friend's response actually made her feel closer, she said.

"She was like, 'Okay, when that vaccine comes, you're gonna be here,' and I'm like, 'Absolutely,'" Middleton said. "Because that's what friends do – we understand each other – that's what real friends do."

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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