It’s Okay to Be the Annoyingly Overcautious One

Scrubbing your doorknobs may not be the best defense against the virus, but don’t let that stop you

Allie Volpe
Forge
Published in
4 min readAug 18, 2020

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Photo: Justin Paget/Getty Images

Safety guidelines seem to morph by the hour. Some measures, like masks, have taken on new urgency, but others that once seemed essential now feel less so. Hand-washing remains vital, but mounting evidence suggests that we probably don’t need to rub our groceries with cleaning wipes anymore.

And yet. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently explained, germ-laden surfaces have emerged as one of the pandemic’s biggest boogeymen. We know now that the virus spreads mainly through respiratory droplets, but many of us are still wiping down doorknobs twice a day and leaving packages outside to decontaminate. Restaurants and other public spaces are still reassuring customers of their regular deep cleans, despite the fact that no amount of scrubbing a tabletop can change the amount of virus emitted by the person eating off of it.

The real danger, Thompson argues, is this sort of “hygiene theater” — performative cleanliness that breeds a false sense of security. “By funneling our anxieties into empty cleaning rituals,” he writes, “we lose focus on the more common modes of Covid-19 transmission and the most crucial policies to stop this plague.”

But how empty are these rituals? Remaining steadfast in your overcautiousness can be a strategy for maintaining boundaries, control, and good public and personal health habits in a time when all of those things feel harder and harder to hold onto. And sometimes hyper-vigilance pays off — as it did for those who wore masks at the beginning of the pandemic, despite government advice that it wasn’t necessary.

“I don’t know that there’s a thing as being too cautious,” says Nicolette Louissaint, PhD, the executive director and president of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit that focuses on strengthening the United States’ health care supply chain. “Taking the appropriate precautions, without creating an undue or unsustainable burden for oneself, is really the goal.” Another person’s unsustainable may be your very doable — and if so, scrub away.

Overcaution inspires empathy

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Allie Volpe
Forge
Writer for

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.