A few weeks ago as I was getting out of my car and walking into my office at our shelter, as usual, I smiled at our landscaping crew working hard outside. I was met with neutral faces. I quickly realized that I was wearing sunglasses and a mask. Of course, they could not see my dashing smile! I lifted up my sunglasses and gave my best “smile with my eyes,” they returned a smile, and I continued to walk into the building.
I reflected on this interaction, and thought about our clients and the world at large. We recognize that a majority of our clients have been impacted by the trauma of domestic violence, and that, now, because of COVID-19, the entire world is experiencing a collective trauma. At Genesis, we pride ourselves in our trauma-informed approach, including understanding the importance of being mindful of our tone, body language, words etc. when interacting with others. The coronavirus brings about special considerations about how we as a community can interact with each other in a trauma informed way, and how we can take into account the unique elements that COVID-19 presents.
Wearing masks to protect our clients and staff presents a new element to our social interactions. We can all agree that wearing a mask can be trauma informed: by wearing a mask, I am protecting my client and the community, as well as modeling healthy boundaries. But to truly be trauma informed, I need to take an additional step. I need to acknowledge that I am wearing a mask, and make it clear that I wear the mask around anyone outside of my household to do my part to protect the community, and that I am not singling out the person I am talking to as “dirty.” How many times have we made an incorrect assumption about an interaction we have had with a family member or coworker? People who have experienced trauma are more sensitive to others and tend to perceive interactions negatively. Because of this, being clear and transparent can help reduce someone’s anxiety and make them feel more comfortable.
In this same vein, body language and tone are incredibly important to be mindful of while wearing a mask and social distancing. Like the example I gave earlier, while wearing a mask, half of my face is covered, so it is difficult to communicate kindness or a welcome. With the combination of social distancing and wearing masks, we have created “walls” between one another for our own health and safety. If you combine that with the isolation that is experienced by survivors of domestic violence, it is easy to see how a social anxiety has crept into our interactions with each other. While interacting with survivors of domestic violence (or frankly, one another), we can take special care to “smile with our eyes,” say hello, and be intentional about our interactions with one another to create positive social interactions. This extends to our tone as well. Again, behind a mask and from 6 feet away, it is easy to misunderstand a tired or bored tone as angry or upset. Taking it even a step further, victims of trauma may perceive this as a threat. By being mindful of my tone, I can create a safe and peaceful interaction with people I meet.
We know that 1 in 3 women in Texas will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. We also know that domestic violence is on the rise in North Texas. By being intentional and trauma informed, we can help create positive interactions not only in the rooms of Genesis, but also in our community. We can create a safe space for someone in our families – or maybe a person at the grocery store – to reach out and ask for help. We are in this together. And as always, Genesis is here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Don’t hesitate to call our hotline if you’ve experienced domestic violence or have questions about how to help a friend: 214.946.HELP (4357).
Written by Krista Fultz, director of advocacy and education at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support