'With restrictions easing, how do we tell someone we don’t want them in our bubble?'

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This is a rare moment when excluding people doesn’t have to mean we don’t like them, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith – so handle your approach with grace

Now that lockdown restrictions are easing a little bit in my area, my family’s been getting a few requests for playdates and dinner visits. It’s exciting but we don’t want to turn our lives into a rotating door of visits and visitors, because there is still risk out there. One of the people who’s been quite persistent in inviting us over lives nearby, and volunteers for the same organisation as me. But geography is where the closeness ends – we don’t have that much in common and, face to face, our conversations are often awkward. If we’re going to expand our small circle we want to prioritise people we like better. Is there a polite way of telling someone we don’t want them in our bubble?

Eleanor says: I’ve been waiting for this moment, the one where our reaction to the risk starts to change, even though the risk itself stays more or less the same. In normal circumstances we expect our reactions to have a half-life: when there’s a fact we can’t change, like “she left me” or “I didn’t get the promotion”, there’s a point when we’re meant to move on.

But when the fact is an ongoing risk, instead of something that recedes into the past, it’s not clear how long our reactions should last. We don’t know what the half-life of fear is meant to be. To some of us it feels as though the fear should be dissolving by now: we’ve had the big reaction, we’ve processed the horror and, like any other grief or upheaval, there’s a point where we need to return to normalcy.

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Now that lockdown restrictions are easing a little bit in my area, my family’s been getting a few requests for playdates and dinner visits. It’s exciting but we don’t want to turn our lives into a rotating door of visits and visitors, because there is still risk out there. One of the people who’s been quite persistent in inviting us over lives nearby, and volunteers for the same organisation as me. But geography is where the closeness ends – we don’t have that much in common and, face to face, our conversations are often awkward. If we’re going to expand our small circle we want to prioritise people we like better. Is there a polite way of telling someone we don’t want them in our bubble?

Eleanor says: I’ve been waiting for this moment, the one where our reaction to the risk starts to change, even though the risk itself stays more or less the same. In normal circumstances we expect our reactions to have a half-life: when there’s a fact we can’t change, like “she left me” or “I didn’t get the promotion”, there’s a point when we’re meant to move on.

But when the fact is an ongoing risk, instead of something that recedes into the past, it’s not clear how long our reactions should last. We don’t know what the half-life of fear is meant to be. To some of us it feels as though the fear should be dissolving by now: we’ve had the big reaction, we’ve processed the horror and, like any other grief or upheaval, there’s a point where we need to return to normalcy.

But for others it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of an arc towards normalcy. This was not, in the first instance, a narrative point for us to integrate. It’s just a virus, and a virus can kill you wherever you’re up to in emotionally processing it.

This split means a lot of us will be asking your question in the next month. We’ll move at different paces towards deciding that this mortal risk can fade to the background, along with all the other death risks that we don’t structure our lives around, such as plane crashes and heart attacks. When our friends and family let it fade faster than we have, how can we politely maintain our own still-reasonable fear and the decisions that come from it?

One useful thing to keep in your arsenal is the move of expressing a preference while not insisting on its reasonableness. People might interpret your more careful approach to social distancing as an attack on their more relaxed one, but you can get ahead of that defensiveness by not presenting your preferences as the objectively right ones.

Slight self-effacement about your decision may be your friend: “Thank you so much for thinking of us, but we’re still being overly cautious about social distancing.” Or you could exploit the fact that these decisions have to be made in household-sized units, and be vague about whose decision it was to decline this particular invitation: “Some of us aren’t feeling quite ready for full social contact yet.”

This is a rare moment when excluding people from our social groups doesn’t need to be solely a function of the fact we don’t like them. Normally declining invitations communicates that, and that’s what makes it so tricky. But this time, they can posit any number of explanations for why you’ve said no. Maybe you’re still scared; maybe you’re close to someone with an autoimmune condition. If the way you decline doesn’t gently imply that they don’t make the inner circle, they’re unlikely to conclude that’s why you said no.

This is an opportunity for you and your neighbours to handle each others’ approaches with grace. Try not to dodge it with an outright lie, tempting as that is – we all need to practice this kind of interaction, because the next few months are going to be filled with them. None of us know how long fear takes to decay. All we can do is be kind to each other despite our different answers.

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