Hey, Bostonians: Stop Screaming at Strangers

COVID-19 has everyone on edge. But we can practice social distancing while still treating each other like neighbors.

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Picture it: Sunday afternoon, a park bench on a steep embankment overlooking Jamaica Pond. The water is still, and the breezy air a fresh reprieve from the stale indoors of a city apartment. As me and my other half unwrap our packed lunch sandwiches, listening to little nature-sounds and watching the few other couples that meander about—careful to not come too close—we exhale a bit of the anxiety that’s been carried inside all week. Everything feels fine. Happy! Normal.

And then, cutting through the quiet, a screech: “Six feet away, motherfucker!” 

Sigh. Normal was nice, while it lasted.

Of course, a pandemic is not normal times. But as I turn my head to find the source of the howl—a huffing runner whose personal space was, or so she ascertained, compromised by a different couple who passed within the appropriate radius—I find myself more, well, grossed out by the response than by the infraction. Is this where we are now, Boston? Yelling slurs at strangers we think are in our way? Assuming of others not best intentions, but reckless irresponsibility? And shaming, hard and loud, anyone who may or may not have failed to deprogram decades’ worth of normal behavior for a fleeting moment in time? (I say “may not” because I didn’t catch this interaction in progress, and the kind of person who responds so reflexively yet caustically is usually the kind of person too oblivious to recognize that they bear some of the blame themselves.)

I stew over the exchange: self-justified venom poisoning a time and place where everyone is just trying to find a little calm and comfort—like a nasty drunk crashing a memorial service to air one last grievance. The runner takes out her phone, and directs it toward the offending couple in the distance, now walking slumped and with fingers mingling more loosely than before. I can hear the inner monologue now: Someone did a bad and the world must know it. SEND TWEET.

If this is part of our new normal, count me out.

That said, although I always feel like an idiot when inserting Captain Obvious-level disclaimers, no potentially contrarian-sounding piece of interwebs content should be published without them. So here are a few:

No, I don’t think that social civility is more important than public health. (Although I would propose that social civility is one important form of public health.)

No, I’m not minimizing the great importance of social-distancing and other vital COVID-containment measures. (Quite the opposite: I want everyone to take them seriously, ’cause I really miss sunlight and my parents.)

No, I’m not above sometimes shooting my mouth off over real or perceived infractions. (As someone who once walked to the other side of a theater to shush teenagers during a really awful movie about a half-man-half-walrus, I completely understand if someone feels compelled to speak out about something that is actually, like, important.)

But—and here comes the but!—as we all wait to see when the morbid peak of the literal pandemic will arrive, I’d suggest our city should also stay attuned to the cresting wave of tension between us all. It can’t be seen with a microscope, but it can sure as hell be felt in the air: The longer we stay sequestered alone, forced to view the world and each other through a self-preservationist lens of suspicion, the shorter our collective fuse becomes. During a crisis that demands compassion and cooperation, that is its own kind of danger.

Of course, cooperation also requires adhering to best practices when we enter public spaces, taking care of ourselves and one another. To that point, there’s a valid argument to be made for calling out egregious oversights. But by my mind, vigilance and empathy are not mutually exclusive—and yes, there’s something to be said for cutting each other a little slack over unintended errors. That’s not a motion to dole out permission-slips for negligent behavior. It’s just a recognition that, although we’re all presently the star of the urban-dystopia movie playing in our own heads, this pandemic is, um, an ensemble piece: We’re all in it together, navigating as best we can. Nobody is perfect, and no one can possibly know the entire butterfly-effect series of circumstance that leads someone to space out and stand a little too close in line at the grocery store, or touch too many cans! on the shelf, spreading radioactive humanness all willy-nilly-like.

I understand the temptation some people feel to citizens-arrest roommates playing catch in the park, or whatever it is that uniquely gets their goat. We’re all scared, stressed, and in various states of lonely. Some are feeling hopeless; some are finding themselves jobless. Enforcing codes of conduct gives us a sense of control over a deadly, invisible menace and allows us to fill the void of strong leadership at the federal level. (When the president literally says he won’t take responsibility, I guess the buck stops with—us?) It offers actual control, too. To reiterate: Responsible behavior will flatten the curve and get us back to normal city-life more quickly!

But I’d suggest that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do your part in policing. First, leave a little room for nuance, and know that not everyone will see their circumstance exactly as you do yours. (For instance: I might not enter one myself, and because few people could responsibly pull them off, I wouldn’t endorse ’em. But if some folks decide to establish a consensual, closed-circle of quarantine-time contacts, that is probably their prerogative and not mine.) Two, allow that simple misunderstandings might still occur. And three, honestly consider your motivations at any given moment. Are you indeed trying to be a champion of sound epidemiological science? Or, at a time when a tiny virus has brought the whole world to its knees—making us all feel very, very humbled and very, very vulnerable—is moral superiority simply too intoxicating an elixir to resist?

I’m trying to not drink it. When prudent oversight becomes totally uncharitable judgment, none of us stay on an unimpeachable pedestal for long. Feeling good about that makeshift mask you fashioned from a cotton bandana? Someone with a higher-quality covering is giving you the side-eye for not finding something better, already. Thoughtfully jog into the street to give passing pedestrians a wider berth? Get beeped at by a car who thinks you’re actually being inattentive. And so it goes.

Healthcare professionals and other essential workers are not putting themselves on the line so that we can all flout the rules and make matters worse. They’re also not trying to save a world where we treat each other like crap. From work life to social life, we’re all learning new ways of being right now that we’ll wind up taking with us when we get back to business as usual. I hope the interdependence we’re all rediscovering is one of them.

So, I’ll start. To that runner in the park whose outsized anger irked me so, I’m sorry. I don’t know your whole story either. Maybe you’d been gracious all day, and one last straw broke your back. Maybe you’ve been dealing with anxiety without support. Maybe you’d just been laid off, or learned that someone was sick, and the stress showed. Maybe, like the rest of us, you’re doing your best and just had a slip. I should offer some slack.

The next time you lace up tight, I hope you’ll do the same.