‘We must respect people’s right to say no’, says social psychologist expert on Christmas bubbles and family conflicts.
Dr Elle Boag, associate professor in Applied Social Psychology at Birmingham City University, says we must be mindful that others may feel guilty and overwhelmed by festive gathering decisions.
Christmas is undoubtedly one of the most family-oriented periods in our calendars; a time of celebration, getting together, eating too much, drinking way too much, the giving and receiving of gifts, and a tradition that remains stable throughout generations until 2020.
The relaxation of the COVID-19 restrictions announced by the Government is clearly fabulous news for some people, as they will be able to meet up and celebrate the short festive season with family members or close friends that they have not been able to see over the lockdown periods. Although not the typical ‘traditional’ Christmas celebration, for some, it will be ‘better than nothing’.
Unfortunately, there will be others for whom the relaxation of the regulations is meaningless, as they have not, nor do they intend to, adhere to the restrictions anyway. Despite the guidance and messages from health and Government leaders, some will always consider themselves exempt from the rules or laws millions of others are following. So their Christmas parties are already organised, and any limits on the number of invitations is simply not a consideration – after all, three households could in effect mean double figures anyway.
For others, there will be an increased level of anxiety about catching COVID-19 as they will be in close proximity, inside, with people who they have not seen, other than perhaps virtually, since either last Christmas or March this year. This increased anxiety may also be exacerbated by concerns of feeling pressured to visit with or have visits from family members and friends who want to celebrate Christmas with them, and this pressure and the anxiety may well lead to them not being able to voice their concerns, or alternatively, have their concerns minimised or squashed by comments such as ‘don’t be silly, it’s only us’, ‘so you think we all have Covid?’ or ‘oh just come along, you can stay far away from us’ and so on.
It may not be the intention of family members or friends to increase the worries of their relatives or friends, indeed, many would be horrified if they knew that this was the case, but in reality, this is what will be happening in many families and friendship groups over this festive season.
So what can, or should, we do?
Take a moment to consider exactly what can be achieved in a ‘safe’ way. We will potentially be mixing with other households who may have been protecting themselves and others by wearing masks, washing their hands regularly and adhering to social distancing rules. Alternatively, we may be mixing with people who have not been doing so, and who uphold the view that this is all simply an exercise in social control, that COVID-19 is not as lethal as the flu, or that ‘science’ shows that it is all being exaggerated – we all know someone who has these views.
I am a big fan of questioning regulations that are imposed on us, but in this case, I am afraid I fall into the first category and now feel quite naked without a mask and always carry sanitiser with me as I have friends who have had and are still suffering the effects of COVID-19, as well as acquaintances and family members of close friends whose relatives and friends have died from the virus. So just take a moment to consider how any festive celebrations might be held safely. Imagine how you would feel if one of your partygoers subsequently falls ill with COVID-19 – remember that you do not need to be ill to have the virus. Being asymptomatic can be more harmful as you do not know that you are infectious!
Second, be aware that some people will be really anxious about mixing with others, and although they may be really important to you and you may really want to take this opportunity to be with them again, they may have real concerns and not want to mix at this time. In such cases, respect their right to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’. Be mindful that they are just not ready to be in larger groups of people where infection may be spread. Do not pressure or cajole them into changing their mind, do not try to make them feel guilty – they will probably feel guilty enough at saying no, so do not make it worse for them.
Also, stop to consider that some people who may be very concerned about the virus, and who may not want to mix with people during the festive season (or any other time right now) might not say ‘no’ – they may feel so overwhelmed with feelings that they are letting the family, or people extending an invitation, down. Such people may look more nervous when you speak to them, they may stop making eye contact, or make excuses why they cannot come, or that they can come for just a very short time. They may change the subject every time you mention anything about them visiting or having a visit. Stop and think, look and listen, the cues are typically there, so just be mindful and allow them the right to stay away. Make sure you identify clearly that it is okay, that you understand, that there will come a time when it will be safer and you can meet then instead. Perhaps suggest a virtual meeting, if this is possible, or have a doorstep visit on Christmas morning or during the festive season to exchange gifts or just to say ‘Merry Christmas.’
Finally, just remember that this is not the last opportunity that we will ever have to get together in groups with friends and family members. We will eventually get on top of this, we are promised a vaccine, and we can live in hope that this will be effective, but even if not, we will eventually return to what will be a ‘new normal’ so life and relationships will continue. We will return to barbeques in the summer, to celebrating and attending weddings, parties and other group celebrations. So don’t all go mad. Be mindful of yours and others’ safety.
2020 is nearly over, let’s all hope that 2021 sees our normality return and that we learn to live, love, laugh, work and play alongside this virus. So however you choose to celebrate this year, I wish you a safe and most of all a very, very Merry Christmas.