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Pandemic jerk: A new kind of bad behavior

Enforcing social distancing isn’t easy, even when you’re simply trying to serve people ice cream.

That’s what Cape Cod’s Mark Lawrence learned when he reopened his Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour on May 8. Customers frustrated with wait times and social distancing requirements harassed employees. A 17-year-old worker quit, and Lawrence decided to shutter the shop just one day later.

“People have forgotten how to treat other human beings in the six or seven weeks that they’ve been confined to their homes,” Lawrence told CNN affiliate WFXT. “They have no clue how to respect other human beings.”

It’s just the latest incident in a string of bad behavior since the pandemic began.

In March, a violent fight broke out in a San Francisco grocery store as shoppers scrambled to stock up on essentials. On April 30, a man shoved Austin, Texas, park ranger Cassidy Stillwell into a lake after the ranger politely asked a crowd to disperse.

But while there’s no excuse for dangerous behavior, psychologist Vaile Wright said it’s understandable that some are struggling to contain their tempers. It’s a difficult time.

“You just have a lot of people that are frustrated, that are angry,” said Wright, the senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “Those are the type of emotions that I think lead us to act out.”

What if you’re the pandemic jerk?

Even the most committed non-jerks can snap under stress. Sometimes, the jerk is you.

“Stress can lead somebody to be irritable, so can anxiety,” Wright said. “You’re just on this short fuse.”

As people cope with lost wages, uncertainty, grief and other challenges of the pandemic, Wright noted that keeping feelings in check can be hard.

“Things that maybe before, if you felt more emotionally in control, you would have a more measured behavioral response, right now that short fuse might make you jump to acting in ways that possibly you wouldn’t under more normal circumstances,” she said.

Wright cited a meta-analytic review published in The Lancet, which found that papers on the psychological effects of quarantine reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress, confusion and anger.

“With isolation and quarantine, the longer it goes on, the more significant the psychological distress results from it,” Wright said.

While the pandemic is currently a fact of life, Wright said taking care of ourselves can help keep an even keel.

“We need to be eating healthy, getting some activity, getting sleep and staying connected to others. We really have to maintain that foundation,” she said.

“Without that foundation, it just becomes so much harder for us to feel in control of our thoughts and our feelings and our behaviors.”

If you do start to boil over, Wright suggested using classic temper-control strategies such as counting to 10. Other APA-recommended anger management techniques include taking deep breaths, visualizing a relaxing experience and finding a calming word or phrase to repeat.

Ready to try it out? Take some long, slow breaths while saying “take it easy,” or “relax.” It actually works.

Once you have a moment to pause, Wright recommended taking some time to think through what you’re really angry about.

It’s likely that your frustration stems from the pandemic itself, rather than the individual you’re upset with in the moment. By recognizing that, Wright said it’s easier to avoid lashing out.

“You’re not angry at the park ranger,” she said, referring to the Austin man who was shoved into a lake last month. “You’re angry at the lack of control.”

Encountering a pandemic jerk in the wild

Of course, losing your temper isn’t the only way to be a jerk during a global pandemic. With the heightened risk of infection, simply standing too close or failing to practice proper hygiene can put others’ lives at risk.

That’s being a pandemic jerk, too.

From pedestrians who won’t make space on the sidewalk to #nomask refuseniks, encounters with pandemic jerks are a nearly universal Covid-19 phenomenon. Sightings of pandemic jerks are commonly reported as Twitter rants, or via heated 911 calls reporting the neighbors for throwing parties or playing volleyball.

Etiquette expert Lizzie Post, co-president of the The Emily Post Institute, said that our strategies for dealing politely with strangers must adapt to the situation at hand.

“Safety is going to be what determines our appropriate behavior,” said Post, who is etiquette maven Emily Post’s great-great-granddaughter. Still, she said it’s still essential to respond thoughtfully when we see something we don’t like.

“It doesn’t just give us license to be rude,” she said.

When it comes to maintaining proper social distancing, Post suggested starting by asking yourself what you can personally do to improve the situation — even if the other person does not appear to be doing his part.

If you can get enough space by moving to the other side of the sidewalk or grocery aisle, for example, that’s a good alternative to confronting a stranger.

Post recommended practicing some lines in advance, in case you do need to speak up.

That way, you’ll be prepared and more likely to stay calm in the moment. In a blog post on coronavirus etiquette, The Emily Post Institute suggested the phrases “Pardon me, while I try to keep 6 feet away,” or “Sorry, just trying to keep distance.”

In the end, said psychologist Wright, we need to remember that we can’t control other people’s behavior.

“You getting worked up because somebody isn’t doing what you want them to do? That’s not going to change the situation.”

Don’t be a jerk to your friends

As some states loosen guidelines on social distancing, there’s a new ambiguity to social situations, too.

Lizzie Post noted that navigating friendships and communities where individuals have varied comfort levels, vulnerability and exposure requires an extra dose of tact.

In Post’s home state of Vermont, for example, the most recent guidance from Governor Phil Scott allows for socializing with a “trusted household.”

That calls for a novel kind of conversation between friends.

“It’s totally OK for you to be honest,” Post said. “Don’t feel like someone else’s level of protection or socialization needs to be yours.” If you want to get together with a friend, she suggested that you start with a phone call.

“The first question is ‘Is there a way that either of us feel comfortable doing that?'”

After making your own needs known, Post said it’s helpful to make clear that you’re open to accommodating your friend. “I close it by saying, ‘If you’re comfortable with that, great. If you’re not, let me know what you would be comfortable with.'”

If your friend responds by suggesting a video chat instead, be gracious. You’ll be affirming that you care about her needs more than any particular get-together.

“State your boundaries, state your comfort levels and respectfully offer to let the other person operate within their own [comfort zone],” Post said.

What to remember about pandemic jerks

Whether you’re keeping your own temper in check, or working to address a problem with a stranger or friend, Post and Wright agreed that compassion is a key ingredient.

“We don’t really know what the other person’s situation is,” Wright said. “We don’t really know why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

Recognizing that others are struggling can help us cut people some slack, even if we don’t like what we see.

Post said that perspective goes both ways.

“It’s kind of this endless cycle,” she said. “You’re trying to be on your best behavior, and trying to be compassionate and patient with other people’s not-best behavior.”

Wright added that she hoped the pandemic would offer Americans the chance for some reflection, too. “We don’t have to like that this current situation is happening, but it is happening,” she said.

“Where we need to get to is remembering that we’re all in this together.”

Article Topic Follows: Health

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