This is part of a special series, We’re Reemerging. What Does the World Look Like Now?, which considers in real time how we cope while living through a historic time. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here.
As everyone begins to reflect upon a full year of pandemic lockdown, I’m thinking about how, last March, I somewhat publicly lost my cool. I was in New York City and a handful of my friends—think, like, the type of friends you see on a group outing, not necessarily the ones you invite to family-only birthday dinners or whatever—contemplated fleeing for home, and then a few of them ultimately did, getting on cheap flights in those first few weeks of terrifying uncertainty.
Stuck in New York against my will, I decided the best attitude for me to have was that of an embittered, self-righteous asshole. I went on a tear, posting vague threats about anyone who boarded a flight on my Instagram story, making it clear that I looked down upon those who got out and participated in unsafe activities while I had to stay.
Since then I’ve been living in a cool state of ambient embarrassment; a tolerable state for me, someone who is easily and often embarrassed. I feel solid in my response to the emerging safety protocol at the time and am ultimately glad I stayed put, but I feel not so solid (and arguably pretty bad) about the way I acted. And now, as the vaccine rollout looks more and more promising and I’m beginning to feel a tingle of optimism about the upcoming summer, that ambient embarrassment has risen to legitimate concern: How do I bring up the tension I created with my perfectly nice friends when I inevitably see them again for the first time this year?
I’m not the only one with pandemic-related friend beef; as several people previously told VICE, disagreements about pandemic protocol (like going out to bars and refusing to wear a mask) led to decades-old friendships straining, dwindling, or outright imploding. Leah, 28, told VICE back in December that she and her oldest friend ultimately agreed to stop talking about anything pandemic related, after the friend in question refused to stop posting on Instagram about being out at bars, maskless.
“This is an incredibly important friendship to me; I don’t really have a lot of close friends and I can’t not be friends with her,” Leah said. “I love my best friend. So I told her: ‘I’m just going to have to unfollow you on social media.’ We’re still friends, but there’s a huge hole now where we can’t talk about the pandemic.”
As has been the theme all year long, these are unprecedented interpersonal conflicts. And now, as the end of the pandemic is just beginning to peek out over the horizon, what are we—those having friend beefs—supposed to do? Bring it up to avoid further tension? Pretend it never happened? Chalk all our weird, angry behavior up to pandemic brain?
As David Spiegel, medical director of the Stanford Center for Stress and Health, told VICE, it depends on how much tension you can handle. “It depends on your comfort level,” Spiegel said. “That lump will be there; you’ll be thinking about it, and they’ll probably be thinking about it. I don’t think there’s some rule that you have to bring it up, unless that person’s dismissal of the safety measures continues to threaten you.”
For example, let’s say you had a text-message fight with a friend about wearing a mask in public back in April 2020. Does that friend still thwart the rules, and in doing so, would hanging out with them this summer put you at unnecessary risk? In that case, as Spiegel said, it’s probably wise to bring it up, and try and resolve the issue or just decide not to see that person at all.
“Rather than judging them for being an idiot, you just say, ‘Here’s how it made me feel.’”
A good litmus test for figuring out whether you need to raise the issue, Spiegel said, is to ask yourself “how much does this get in the way of rebuilding this relationship?” If the answer is, I’m still so mad at Tim for that vacation he took to Panama City Beach last June that I can’t stand to look him in the eye, that’s probably a sign you need to have a little chat with Tim. There are good and less-good ways to go about it. “There’s an approach to these kinds of conflicts called ‘non-defensive directness’ where, rather than focusing on what the other guy did, you say, ‘Look, I want to reconnect with you, but when you did X, here’s how I felt,” Spiegel said. “Rather than judging them for being an idiot, you just say, ‘Here’s how it made me feel.’”
Also, this feels counterintuitive, but Spiegel said starting these conversations in writing—so, over text—can actually be better than trying to hash it out in person or over the phone. In a text conversation, the other person has a moment to 1) recall what the hell you’re even talking about (it’s been a long year!); 2) privately get re-mad, if they so choose; 3) think; and 4) craft a calm, even-keeled response. Spiegel provided some suggested text: “Look, I really want to see you, I have been uncomfortable about X, can we work it out before we get together?”
Then you’ll either work it out, or you won’t. As trivial as some of these fights may feel now, at their heart, they’re quite literally about huge things, like life and death, and personal versus social responsibility. The past year is one in which we had to learn—many of us for the first time—what it feels like to fear a loved one. If you and a friend had a disagreement over how valid that fear is, expect any conflict resolution to be difficult. “It’s unlikely that people can easily resolve these differences,” Spiegel said, adding that this is especially true if you or your friend was particularly hard-headed at the time of conflict.
“These conflicts get at this issue of, Am I in it for myself, or do I have responsibility to protect everybody?,” Spiegel said. Surface-level disagreements over wearing a piece of fabric on your face are about much more. It’s possible that, whether you choose to try and resolve an old fight or not, the friendship will be altered forever. But, like many people already told VICE, it’s also possible (and hopeful) that while some friendships may have dwindled, others grew stronger.