Five Things Not to Say to People During a Pandemic

We’re hitting the sixth month of shut-downs, shelter-in-place orders, mask requirements and no hugs. People are worn out. Parents are especially fried. Everyone is being crushed under the weight of economic, social and political tensions.  

Everybody (well, most everybody) wants to do whatever they can to make things better. But in the midst of the pandemic madness, our go-to phrases for social interaction may not always be the most helpful. 

Here are a few things not to say right now.

Don’t Say

“How are you doing?”

Everyone is lousy. Don’t make people pretend otherwise. No one has the extra energy right now for keeping up appearances.

Instead

“Are you able to get any exercise while you’re stuck at home?” or “How many hours a night are you sleeping?” or “What do you miss doing right now?”

These questions require answers that actually give you some insight into how a person is doing. Specific questions let folks know that you really do want to know how they’re doing, and it gives them a safe space to answer honestly.

Don’t Say

“I can’t believe you’re sending your kid back to school/keeping him at home/opting for that crazy hybrid option.”

Everyone’s situation is different, and everyone is dealing with struggles that you are unaware of. Parents have agonized over these decisions, and many will be second-guessing their choices throughout the year. They do not need your unsolicited critiques.

Instead

I know this is incredibly hard. You are a great parent, and I know you are making the best decision for your family.

Don’t Say

“You’re really overreacting.”

Respect what people need to do to feel safe during this time. Whether that means wiping down every item from the grocery store that enters their home or turning down a socially distanced date with you because they are concerned about infection.

Instead

I’m glad you’re doing what you need to do to stay healthy. I can’t wait until we can get together in person again.

Don’t say

“Let me know how I can help.”

First of all, way too many people say this without meaning it. Secondly, right now, people may be too fried and stressed out to be able to figure out what to ask for.

Instead

Ask about specifics. “Can I bring you a meal this week?” or even “I made an extra lasagna/casserole/loaf of bread yesterday, I’ll drop it by.” Call with “I’m headed to the store, what can I pick up for you?” or “Do you need to get out of the house? I’ll swing by and we can for a (socially distanced) walk together.”

Don’t Say

“Yes”–at least not all the time.

If there was ever a time to recognize your limits and reinforce boundaries, it’s now. We are all stretched to the limit. Prioritize what is most important to you and let go of the rest.

Instead

“No.” That’s it. That’s all you have to say. You can also use, “I can’t right now,” if that seems more comfortable.

Being intentional about the words we use right now can be one of the best ways we can care for ourselves and others during this impossibly difficult time.


Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer provides tools and encouragement for the rollercoaster ride of your faith journey. Follow us on Facebook and get emails to keep up with all that is happening.

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