Not five days ago, I heard my neighbor — young, healthy — yell at a food delivery person she decided had gotten too close. “Stay back! Keep a six-foot distance!” she shouted, her voice shaking in panic. The delivery person, masked and gloved, jerked back. His eyes flashed with shock, and then darkened as he rode his bike away.
At the grocery store, I watched a cashier, helpless and weary, listen to a customer complain loudly that the store had not provided antibacterial wipes for those who wanted to clean their carts and baskets. In front of another grocer, a customer didn’t like having to wait to enter — a policy the store enacted to allow those inside to maintain a safe distance from one another. “You should be offering a discount for making us wait,” he told the employee stationed by the door. “I don’t have all day.”
It’s true that, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues its vicious spread across the country, people are finding ways to help their neighbors, support at-risk groups, and show gratitude for essential workers. But the U.S. is also a country where generations of consumers have been taught “the customer is always right.” Unfortunately, especially in today’s high-stress environment, a lot of those customers — perhaps succumbing to frustration, anxiety, a phobia or fear — are in the wrong.
If it sounds like an obvious point — it’s the Golden Rule! — that’s because it probably is, yet it’s also normal for emotions to grow heightened during uncertain, unprecedented times, and for simple kindness to be forgotten. “People process stress in different ways,” says Oriel FeldmanHall, a psychologist and social neuroscientist at Brown. “Stress can have a U-shaped effect on a lot of behaviors. For some people, it makes them more willing to help others. For others, it’s the exact opposite: People pull inward, and start thinking only of themselves, as they seek to tend to their own needs first.”
As others have pointed out, it’s tempting to think of this virus as an equal-opportunity danger, but that’s false. The fact is that some people are more at risk than others. The homeless have nowhere to “shelter in place.” The millions of people who lost their jobs in the past month are at greater risk because they may have lost health insurance alongside their jobs — in addition to the ability to pay next month’s rent. Health-care workers are facing the greatest risk on the front lines. And, a wide range of other essential workers, including those at grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, laundromats, bodegas, those working in transportation or construction, and those delivering food and goods to our doors, put themselves at risk every time they leave their homes.
“People tend to underestimate the impact of their words and actions on other people — for better and worse,” says Vanessa Bohns, a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior at Cornell. “We underestimate how much a simple expression of kindness and gratitude would mean to someone else, and we may similarly underestimate how demoralizing or degrading a rude comment can feel to someone who is putting themselves at risk … We are so focused on our own anxieties that we can’t get out of our own heads to recognize how our own words and actions may impact other people.”
“Most of us want to be good people,” Bohns counsels. “We just need to get out of our heads right now to gain some perspective on how our actions might be impacting others.”
Social psychologists agree that practicing empathy will help us through this. “What we call perspective-taking feeds into empathy,” FeldmanHall says. “When you think about the person who is delivering your food, who is out on the streets when no one else is, take a moment to consider what they’re going through, the risks they’re taking so you can get food or whatever you need, before reacting.”
Lest you think those who are still working are reaping new riches thanks to an increase in demand, think again. Ali Muhammad — who lives in Queens and delivers food in Manhattan for Grubhub/Seamless, Caviar, DoorDash, and other services — says he’s seen a 50-percent reduction in orders over the past two weeks. “People are afraid, and restaurants are closing. The business changes every day. Maybe next week there will not be enough work, I don’t know,” he says.
“People who work in the food industry are not only some of the most essential workers right now, their jobs are also some of the lowest-paying and the most precarious; it doesn’t take much to get let go,” notes Tessa West, a professor of psychology at NYU, whose research focuses on the dynamics of social perception. She advises the classic move of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes: “One way to do this is to give yourself a little test: Imagine the daily life of a food delivery person. How do they feel walking into an apartment building? Do they worry when they knock on someone’s door that the person who answers might be sick? What would this chronic stress feel like?”
Or, just think of it in more selfish terms: Research supports the idea that being kind to others, for whatever reason, is good for you. “Even people who sympathize with others’ situations may miss out on opportunities to offer supportive words because they worry about saying the right thing,” says West. “But research shows people appreciate the gesture, no matter how awkwardly it might be phrased.”
Even in scenarios where the motivation may not be pure, the overall interaction can still be positive. And the research agrees that there’s a positive snowball effect. “When people practice empathic acts, they tend to feel better, and when they feel better, they are more likely to practice empathic acts,” FeldmanHall says, noting that sometimes people need a little push, or a little reminder.
So, here’s the reminder: Just don’t be a dick. You’ll feel better, and so will everyone else. Put another way, in the words of W.H. Auden, who wrote in his prescient poem at the outbreak of World War II: “We must love one another or die.”