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How to convince someone to wear a mask during the pandemic

how to convince someone to wear a mask
Photo via Navy Medicine/Flickr (Public Domain)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: Aug. 2, 2021

Wearing a face mask or covering reduces the spread and transmission of COVID-19. Furthermore, there are very few valid medical excuses for not wearing a mask. Even in these limited cases, individuals with valid medical exemptions from mask wearing are likely at higher risk of becoming seriously ill and should err on the side of caution for their own health. So, how should you convince someone to wear a mask if they simply aren’t interested in doing so?

Despite the facts, the United States has seen endless “mask debates,” probably in part because of Donald Trump’s reluctance to wear one when he was president. The anti-mask contingency has even taken to the streets to protest state and local ordinances—which is also troubling because even after people begin to get vaccinated, Dr. Anthony Fauci said people might need to wear masks into 2022.

While the CDC had advised that people who are vaccinated don’t need to wear masks outdoors or inside for the most part, that guidance changed in late July when the organization said vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places where transmission is high.

Masks are effective for those who are vaccinated and for those who are not. If you need a breakdown on exactly why, the MaskUp Project has a comprehensive piece on it. Even state mask mandates showed themselves to be effective in goosing the economy and for decreasing coronavirus hospitalizations.

Wearing a mask could also keep the cold and flu seasons relatively mild, as well as help with the spread of RSV.

If you need help on how to better communicate with people about the pandemic itself, here are some ideas via Axios.

It may seem like an uphill battle, but there are strategies that work better than others when attempting to convince someone to wear a mask. There are some people who may prove impossible to convince, but in many cases, we may merely be using the incorrect strategies.

How to convince someone to wear a mask? Shaming won’t work

Experts are starting to learn that shaming people for not wearing masks doesn’t work to anyone’s advantage. Instead, people respond better to being listened to and treated with respect—regardless of political affiliation or social status.

Gary Noesner, former chief of the FBI crisis negotiation unit and author of Stalling for Time, spoke with SF Gate about the psychology and subtlety of negotiation tactics.

“As soon as you venture into a tone or demeanor that sounds critical, they will immediately get into a defensive posture,” Noesner said. “Whether they feel strongly about it or not, they feel compelled to defend their freedom to do what they want. So any approach like that is inevitably going to fail.”

“You might say, ‘Excuse me, could I chat with you for a second? I see that you don’t have a mask on, and I know that’s a personal choice and a choice that you need to make,’” he continued. “‘But I have this vulnerability medically. Or my son does. Or my daughter. If not for yourself, you might make others feel more secure.’”

Instead of leaning on science, laws, or facts to get through to people, Noesner argues that this type of coercion “requires a personal appeal” in a strategy he describes as an “I message.” By turning the tables and admitting to personal vulnerabilities instead of assigning blame, people will be much more likely to hear you out rather than shut down further discussion.

Use reverse psychology by emphasizing the benefit to others

A similar strategy involves placing the focus on a moral obligation to avoid putting others in danger. In a series of experiments, two psychology researchers from Ball State University and Ohio State University set out to learn whether invoking these moral obligations would be more persuasive in convincing someone to wear a mask.

Their conclusions seem to suggest so. “In the midst of a global pandemic, messages highlighting the benefits of social distancing for the health and well-being of others may be more influential than messages highlighting social distancing’s benefits for one’s own health,” the study found, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Harvard Business Review likewise suggests “highlighting a gap” to increase a sense of freedom and control by pointing out a disconnect between thoughts and actions when it comes to wearing or not wearing a mask. In other words, what an individual might see as reasonable for themselves might differ in what they recommend for others.

For instance, while many young people may believe they’re invincible to the virus, a good suggestion can be asking them how comfortable they would feel if an elderly grandparent was interacting with infected people. Would they be as comfortable in their grandparent’s shoes? Or in the shoes of someone who might come into contact with their grandparent?

The slogan adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it best: “Your mask may protect them. Their mask may protect you.”

Ask questions

Simply asking questions instead of presenting facts or statements can also come across as less hostile to an individual who feels inclined to go on the defense. As Harvard Business Review points out, much of our public health messaging tends to be direct and confrontational, and questions shift the listener’s role.

For example, instead of stating “those who don’t wear masks are selfish,” instead try, “how bad would it be if your loved ones got sick?” By encouraging someone to articulate their opinion, it becomes more difficult to justify behavior and instead encourages a commitment to a reasonable conclusion. While people may not want to follow someone else’s lead, they tend to be more comfortable in following their own.

Communication and education are key

Keeping an open line of communication and showing an interest in the perspective of others can also go a long way in convincing someone to wear a mask. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

“Particularly people who are angry, they feel that they’re not heard or understood or appreciated. It’s certainly true in my line of work, but generally in life,” Noesner said. “It’s really hard to argue with someone who’s asking you in a sincerely genuine, very non-confrontational way to share your thoughts on something.”

“What you’re really talking about is influencing behavior,” Noesner continued. “You influence it by creating a respectful, trusting relationship. You do that by being non-threatening, and non-aggressive.”

For those dealing with stubborn high-risk or elderly family members, this is also a strategy that tends to work well.

“In having conversations with our senior population, the key to eliciting their support of universal masking is ensuring their freedom of choice,” Jen McNeil, national clinical educator at Amica Senior Lifestyles, told the Toronto Star back in June. “Through education, we are providing our loved ones with the information they need to make choices about their own health and safety, and to understand the responsibility we all share to protect those around us from the spread of COVID-19.”

McNeil also stressed the importance of framing conversations around an elderly or immunocompromised family member’s ability to tolerate wearing a mask. “A couple of key considerations include seniors who may have breathing difficulties or those who may have feelings of anxiety or unease with having a mask on their face.”

If nothing else, try compromise

In the event none of these other methods work to convince someone to wear a mask, a last resort approach is to initially scale back the scope of your request, and then gradually push for more. This could include not just the wearing of masks, but encouraging a shift in other behaviors such as social distancing, thoroughly washing hands, limiting shopping trips, or reducing the frequency of dining out.

And perhaps the CDC’s recommendation that, for the most part, vaccinated people not wearing a mask while outside is OK will help skeptical people who dislike their face coverings to get their vaccinations.

Merely assuming people are going to do the best with the information they have at hand, particularly with so much misinformation floating around, can feel self-defeating at times. But we’re going to need smarter tactics if we want to get this virus under control.

Who knows, maybe giving away free sandwiches and donuts is one solution.

Read more on coronavirus face coverings:

Sources: Harvard Business Review, SF Gate, LA Times, Toronto Star, Mic


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