Choose to be Kind: COVID-19 Communication Challenges.

One challenge people report throughout the past pandemic year is more difficulty communicating with others. Some folks focus on hurtful interactions with family and friends while others highlight frustrating exchanges with the world at large (colleagues, customer service representatives, grocery store clerks, etc.). A question we hear over and over again is, why? Is being rude (or “honest”) more socially acceptable? Do people no longer have manners or filters? Although generational differences, cultural shifts and the impact of long-term stress on peoples’ behaviors impacts these experiences, I’d like to highlight one specific stressor from this past year: isolation.

Much in-person interaction rich with immediate information (Why is that woman wrinkling her nose at me?) has been reduced to more “efficient” exchanges—at a distance, behind masks and plexiglass, or through a myriad of technologies (phone, text, instant messages, snapchat, video, etc.). These so-called efficient communication modalities all add extraneous elements to the process which result in minimizing the diversity of helpful feedback. For example speaking louder through a mask, not seeing facial expressions over the phone, not hearing the tone of voice via text, and not seeing body language over video all drastically change our experience. As a result we tend to respond by utilizing more “efficient” communication, meaning less: less words, less nuances, less content, less social niceties, less time, less grace.

Additionally our daily feedback from the world around us is focused more on repetition and less on diversity; we interact with a small select group of people through very specific mediums, in narrow geographic areas, completing a specific set of weekly tasks. When our brains have less stimulus and minimal new information our thought processes tend to narrow and become more rigid. This results in us believing, more often than not, that we are RIGHT. For example in the past a family would go out to eat. They’d sit down to order food and the kids would try and order ice cream for dinner. The server might make a joke, and the family would be surrounded by other tables with kids eating chicken fingers and mac and cheese. The parents and kids would notice all of this feedback (conscious and unconscious), and then make a decision about what the kids could order. However over the past year people have been eating in isolation surrounded by at most a small group of people, and the only feedback they’re receiving is their own. Ice cream for dinner might have ended up being the new normal (COVID 15 anyone?).

So how do we work with this in a healthy way? Take time to respond, seek feedback from a diverse group of people, and give others the benefit of the doubt. Thinking it’s a good time to send grandma an “honest” letter explaining your true feelings about her homemade sweaters? Trusting that it’s wise to email your boss with a list of complaints about her management style? Decide this is the week to let the checkout person at the supermarket know what you think of his math skills? Pause, take some deep breaths, talk to people in and outside of your small circle of trusted folks, and think about your ultimate goal. Then communicate with patience, kindness, tact and thoughtfulness. After all, your relationship with your grandma is certainly more important than whether the sweater fits you or your Chihuahua.

Take time this week to notice where your communication has become “efficient,” and make an effort to shift, reach out and repair, as needed.