BAAM founder Mike Fisher speaks in Britain’s The i Newspaper (the new, hipster version of The Independent) today, discussing our different attitudes around lockdown restrictions.
Read the piece on the paper’s website here, read the whole article below, or even better buy a copy and support print media.
Lockdown easing: Experts explain how to navigate hugs, masks and divide in opinion when Covid restrictions end
How do you ensure you don’t fall out with someone over their stance on unlocking?
I have a friend, Alex, 46, who is a senior civil servant and organising a small party for his parent’s 50th wedding anniversary in a restaurant in London. His older brother, Richard, is refusing to come.
“He’s a double masker, who has spent the last 16 months more or less hiding out, off grid, in rural Shropshire. He talks openly about Boris Johnson’s ‘democide’ and the conspiracy to kill poor people.” London, to Richard, is Plague City and it would be grossly irresponsible to travel there – even to mark such a landmark in his family’s life. Alex, no fan of Mr Johnson himself, just shrugs and sighs: “Some families were torn apart by Brexit. Covid has done it for us.”
As “freedom day” – itself a provocative term, for some – approaches, fault lines are appearing across the country. For most of the past 16 months people’s wildly divergent views on lockdowns, masks or the vaccine have been confined to Facebook or a WhatsApp group. But now we are being actively encouraged to socialise, to meet up and throw those long-delayed birthday parties or anniversaries the divisions within society are becoming more apparent.
Part of the problem, according to leading psychologists, is that lockdowns have put a large strain on friendships. “Friendships are very dependent on maintaining very frequent rates of contact. If you drop below those rates, friendships drop off in quality relatively quickly,” says Robin Dunbar, who is an anthropologist and professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford.
“Over the course of a year, the quality of a close friendship can drop by a third if you don’t see a person at all – if you used to see them, say, weekly. We are just teetering on the edge of [lockdowns] making a real difference.”
The first big summer party or gathering is likely to cause some tensions – especially if you have discovered that Aunt Margery has become a fervent anti-vaxxer or Bob, your old university friend, refuses to remove his mask while policing double dipping in the hummus.
Prof Dunbar points out that studies in Australia have suggested when children returned to school after lockdowns, there was an increase in bullying. “It looked like the kids were trying to re-establish the social order, because they hadn’t seen each other for so long. I think we’re going to see a similar phenomenon among the adults here. OK, we don’t usually resort to bullying, but there might be some edginess.”
It may seem silly to fall out over your attitude towards unlocking, but a large chunk of people have remarkably strong views, and think the people on the other side of the debate are not just mistaken but bad people.
Ipsos Mori, the polling company, published a wide-ranging study on culture wars in partnership with King’s College London last month. While the majority of people are fans of keeping restrictions, lockdown supporters say they have particularly cold feelings towards lockdown opponents. Asked to rate them on a scale of zero to 100, with zero being cold and negative and 100 warm and positive, they rated lockdown opponents at just 22.
Lockdown supporters (55 per cent) are twice as likely as lockdown opponents (27 per cent) to say it’s difficult to be friends with people on the other side of the debate. You might think there’d be a similar dividing line with Brexit Leave vs Remain, but there’s not. The huge majority say they can be friends with people on the other side of the debate.
Why is this? Why can lockdowns be more divisive than Brexit? Dr Lydia Kearney, lecturer in cognitive psychology, University of Kent, says: “Because of the way Covid has been discussed – you’re taking these precautions to protect other people, not just yourself, I think it has been given a moral component.
“It is very easy, whichever side you find yourself, to make quite large judgements about a person. So you’re not just saying this person doesn’t want to wear a mask, or this person wants to carry on wearing a mask. You are taking one aspect and ballooning it out to explain the person more fully.”
So, how do you ensure you don’t fall out with someone over their stance on unlocking? “You need to remember you are opposed to this person on this one topic, not every single topic,” advises Dr Kearney.
“Even if you can’t find a happy medium, there are other aspects about that person and that relationship that has meaning.”
Mike Fisher, founding director of the British Association of Anger Management, says he has seen a huge increase in demand from people wanting to go on anger‑management courses during lockdown. He admits that he has had to “cut ties” with some friends because of his “fierce” view on the importance of masks and social distancing, which he has expressed on social media. Nonetheless, he stresses how crucial it is – when you violently disagree with someone – to try to see their point of view.
“Stop and look at the bigger picture. This is the dominant rule with anger management. See beyond your own reality,” he says.
Prof Dunbar adds: “The key skill we learn in childhood that allows us to live in large communal social systems is the skill of diplomacy.”
Debrett’s etiquette advice
Ask before you act If you are naturally tactile, and do not fear the consequences, pause for thought before going in for a hug, and ask if it is acceptable. And people who still do not want physical contact on greeting may well avoid embarrassment by jumping in first, with an explanatory “I’m sorry, I’m nervous about hugging”.
Be hyper aware
While you may be desperate to cast off your mask, it might be advisable to keep one to hand; if you find yourself in a crowded situation, for example a train, and surrounded by nervous mask-wearers, it might be tactful to mask up.
Don’t be a vaccine bore
Declaring “I don’t care – I’m double vaccinated” may not win you friends. Many younger people are still waiting for their second vaccines. If, though, you are seeking to reassure a nervous person about your physical proximity, you can always confide that you have had both vaccines.
Make polite enquiries
As a host it is acceptable to seek reassurance from potential guests about their vaccination status or contact with potential Covid-carriers. Accompany such enquiries with an apologetic explanation about your anxiety and nobody should take offence.