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How to Ask a Colleague to Mask Up

Have you faced the awkward prospect of having to ask someone to mask up at work? There is no denying that mask-wearing has become morally loaded, which makes this conversation particularly tricky. The author offers three suggestions for how to make the request more effective: 1) Be prepared. If you know what you are going to say in advance — instead of having to come up with something on the spot — it’s a lot easier to follow through. 2) Ask in a way that allows the other person to save face. That is, you want to affirm that you don’t think the other person is a bad person, and that you aren’t rejecting them interpersonally. In essence, your script should convey, “You’re good. We’re good. But I just need you to do this thing.” 3) Be direct. A direct request, in contrast to indirect beating around the bush, is much more effective for securing someone’s compliance.

A client walks into your office with their mask below their chin.

You get into the elevator and realize the person next to you isn’t wearing a mask. 

Your coworker leans over your desk to chat, and each time they speak, they pull their mask down to do so.

As many Covid-related restrictions are in flux and the Delta variant rages on, companies are facing the challenge of getting people who have stopped masking elsewhere to mask up in the office.

A person may show up at work mask-less for any number of reasons. They might have simply gotten back into old habits and forgotten. They might not know what your business’s current masking policy is. They might see a masking recommendation as just that — a recommendation — and decide against it, or even blatantly disagree with it.

Regardless of their reason for going mask-less, you may nonetheless prefer that they mask up around you. Or, you may find yourself in the position of needing to enforce a broader masking policy.

So, what should you say to encourage someone to wear a mask, or otherwise maintain their distance, so that this request is met with acquiescence and not offense or anger? As a social psychologist, I’ve studied social influence and compliance for more than 15 years. Based on this research, I have three suggestions for how to make your request more effective.

Be prepared.

There is no denying that mask-wearing has become morally loaded. This makes asking someone to comply with this request particularly tricky. It is extremely uncomfortable to point out when someone else is doing something that could be construed as morally wrong. Indeed, research finds that we are less likely to call someone out on racist or homophobic remarks or confront sexual harassment than we imagine we will be when considering such a situation hypothetically.

This is also likely to be the case for confronting someone who isn’t wearing a mask. In the abstract, we may imagine doing so with confidence — even bravado. Yet when we find ourselves in the immediate situation of actually needing to speak up and confront someone about their behavior, we may find it much more awkward, and thus difficult to follow through, than we imagined.

For these reasons, my first suggestion is to prepare. We often hesitate to speak up because, in the moment, we feel awkward and struggle to find the right words. However, if you know what you are going to say in advance — instead of having to come up with something on the spot — it is a lot easier to follow through. So, come up with a few go-to scripts now that you can use in that kind of situation in the future, and practice them in your head — or even better, out loud — a few times.

Ask in a way that allows the other person to save face.

The reason these kinds of requests are so awkward is that calling out someone’s moral behavior has the potential to threaten the image so many of us try to present to the world that we are good, moral people. It can also threaten a person’s fundamental need for social acceptance to be called out by another person, particularly in public. In essence, there is a subtext to such a request that goes, “this person doesn’t like me and thinks I’m a bad person.” The feeling of shame and embarrassment that follows is what can lead someone to react poorly and balk at a request.

This is why an effective request allows the other person to save face by addressing both of these concerns. You want to affirm that you don’t think the other person is a bad person and that you aren’t rejecting them interpersonally. In essence, your script should convey: “You’re good. We’re good. But I just need you to do this thing.”

Concrete ways to do this might include noting that you are asking everyone to mask up these days, so the person doesn’t feel singled out. You could offer an attribution that allows them to save face. (“I think you may have forgotten, I know our policies keep changing…”) You could use an, “It’s not you, it’s me,” tactic, for example, indicating that you don’t know if you yourself have been exposed to Covid and want to protect the other person. (“My kids are in daycare, and I don’t want to get you sick.”) Or, you could use the common negotiation tactic of indicating that your hands are tied by a third party. (“My manager would kill me if I didn’t follow these protocols…” or “I’m just trying to be extra cautious because my father has a pre-existing condition.”)

The upshot of each of these suggestions is that they allow any moral judgment or blame to be taken off the other person for showing up without a mask or failing to use it properly. That allows them to easily save face by simply following your request to put on, or pull up, their mask.

Be direct.

That brings us to the actual ask. While your script should allow the other party to save face, it needs to be balanced with a clear, direct request. Because it is so uncomfortable to confront someone, our solution is often to only hint at what we want them to do, rather than clearly and directly asking for what we want. Yet my research with Frank Flynn, a Stanford professor, finds that a direct request, in contrast to indirect beating around the bush, is much more effective for securing someone’s compliance. It’s a lot harder for a person to refuse a direct request that they put on their mask than it is to pretend they didn’t know or understand what you were asking them to do.

So, you’ll want to follow-up your face-saving script, “My manager would kill me if I didn’t follow these protocols,” with a clear, direct request, “So, can you please put on your mask?”

This transition period in which rules seem to be endlessly changing and varying from location to location — with some places requiring masks, and others not — is going to require us to practice a new kind of mask etiquette: making the expectations of a given situation clear (mask or no mask), while preserving face for everyone.

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