Quarantine Bubbles Require Directness, and Tolerance of Rudeness

by Raemon2 min read7th Jun 20208 comments


CoronavirusCommunication CulturesCommunity
Personal Blog

Berkeley recently introduced a rule where:

  • You always wear a mask within 30' of people, except...
  • You can have a 12-person "Quarantine Social Bubble" of people who interact with each other normally.
  • You can rotate people in your Social Bubble every three weeks.

I think these are the sensible longterm rules, for people who can coordinate well. 

I think most people can't coordinate well, but it was the right decision for Berkeley to make this the rule, because it is actually the obvious Schelling Rule, and people would probably rebel and say "fuck it" if they couldn't do this.

But, I am quite worried about it anyway.

If people get excited about rotating social bubbles, they may screw up and hurt themselves or people they care about. Even if they're smart people who know better.

Twelve people is a lot, and it only takes one roommate or friend who didn't communicate clearly, or took an extra risk without telling everyone, to ruin things for everyone.

I think there are some very important norms about honesty, reliability, and clarity that are very essential to have, if you want to be able to have social-bubbles without risking harm to yourself, your friends and the broader local community.

I don't think we currently have those norms, and they are hard to create from scratch. Creating them will be uncomfortable.

It needs to be common, and acceptable, to ask someone "Hey, have you interacted with any non-social-bubble people without a mask? Even for a little bit? Are you sure? Are you confident that all the other people you interacted with also haven't interacted with people without masks? How do you know? Did you ask them?"

Different people have different risk tolerances, and different beliefs about what actions are risky. But it has to be possible to say:

"Alas. I understand this is hard, and you (or your roommate) are trying your best in a difficult time, but [Action X] means that I won't be interacting with you or the people in your social bubble for another 3 weeks. I still care about you as a friend but it's important for me and my other roommates to stay safe."

I *hope* that people can do all that with compassion. I hope people actually cultivate the skillset of being firm, but empathetic. But, if you don't have the skills of being firm, and willing-to-ask-direct-questions, and empathetic all at once, I'm willing to go on record saying:

 If you can't do all three, empathy is the one you have to drop,

This is really important.

This will suck. It will be hard on people psychologically. It's hard to say "I'm not willing to hang out with you" without it coming across as a harsh social judgment, even if you specifically say "it's not a social judgment, just a practicality."

It's nonetheless important to do it anyway, and to hope over time we learn to internalize a new set of norms, where a) people are much more careful, upfront and direct about their practices, b) we are firm about expecting others to do the same, c) we do that while respecting each other as friends and community members trying their best to make it through a difficult time

I think for a given social bubble to actually be safe, every person will need to have talked to every other person about their quarantine practices, so they can make an informed choice together about what risks to take. They need to communicate clearly with everyone in the bubble about any exceptions they make.

That's a pretty big overhead for establishing a bubble. It means that I think it probably doesn't make sense to rotate bubbles willy-nilly. Each rotated bubble, to actually be safe, requires all that communication overhead all over again.

Rotating social bubbles is an important tool to ensure people's social and emotional lives can thrive in the upcoming year, but doing so responsibility is quite difficult. Even maintaining a single social bubble responsibly is quite difficult. 

Tolerating Rudeness

I'm reminded of Sarah Constantin's Hierarchy of Requests (where level 1 is "too paralyzed to even ask for something", level 2 is "you ask rudely", level 3 is "you ask nicely", and level 4 is "you subtly maneuver things such that people do the thing without you asking.)

In quarantine, I'm worried that the skill of asking "did you see anyone without a mask? Did you visit someone's house? etc" is something most people will be too paralyzed to ask. Eventually I hope we will be able to ask nicely, or that everyone will proactively volunteer information with each other.

But meanwhile, to establish the norm, it is important that we be able to ask rudely, while we practice the skill.

(If I ask you rudely, I apologize in advance)

I'm sure there are some people reading this who are struggling desperately to hold themselves together, who are worried about a social world with lots of rules that they won't always be able to live up to. This is a real cost and it sucks terribly.

But, this is really important.

Sometimes the world just dumps a bunch of terrible crap on us, and it's our responsibility to work together, to find the least bad options, and help each other through them as best we can.