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Politics, religion, and now COVID vaccines: How to avoid conversational landmines at holiday gatherings

The COVID vaccine joins a long list of thorny topics—religion, politics, et al—that have long served as conversational landmines at holiday gatherings.
John Minchillo
The COVID vaccine joins a long list of thorny topics—religion, politics, et al—that have served as conversational landmines at holiday gatherings for decades.

The COVID-19 vaccine is making it possible for families to gather once again this holiday season. And it’s also one of the reasons those get-togethers could get uncomfortable.

The COVID vaccine joins a long list of thorny topics—religion, politics, et al—that have served as conversational landmines at holiday gatherings for decades (centuries?). It won’t be long before you’re splitting a wish bone with Uncle Bob or Aunt Alice as they share unsolicited opinions about Dr. Anthony Fauci, vaccine mandates, or Aaron Rodgers.

We checked in with two experts for their advice on COVID vaccine etiquette: Erin Osborn, social service coordinator at UnityPoint’s behavioral health service line in Peoria; and Matt Mollenhauer, chief clinical officer at Bloomington-based Chestnut Health Systems.

Before you go: Are you vaccinated?

Before attending a family gathering, it’s “completely appropriate” to ask about the vaccination status of your host or other attendees, said Mollenhauer.

“The unfortunate part is that the second you ask the question, it’s labeled, it’s judged, it’s critiqued. You must think I’m wrong if I’m not, or depending on how I answer,” he said. “I think it has to be a fair topic. Who’s bringing stuffing? Who’s bringing pie? Who’s got vaccine should be right on that list of questions. It shouldn’t be treated any different.”

It all comes down to personal judgment, Mollenhauer said.

“We’re all at this stage of the game-making decisions on a daily basis on what we’re comfortable with. And the dynamic of family adds a wrinkle to this, but it’s not much different than the decision to go to the grocery store, or out to dinner, or a kid’s sporting event,” he said.

Setting boundaries

If you’re worried about the conversation turning political (or vaccine-y), don’t leave it to chance. Set boundaries in advance. That could be as formal as a pre-gathering disclaimer.

“It may be worth the extra step of saying, ‘The following topics are off-limits during this event. We’re not going to talk politics. We’re not going to talk COVID,’” Mollenhauer said.

Or you could just be prepared should the conversation take a turn, such as rehearsed responses, Osborn said.

“Or you can redirect the conversation and steer it away from the sensitive topic at home. You could say, ‘Instead of talking about that, what did you do over this past year to stay fit, healthy, and calm? What is on your bucket list for next year?’” Osborn said.

Why so serious?

A little empathy goes a long way. It’s important to remember that people have been through a lot over the past 20 months, and you might not be privy to all of that—even if you’re relatives.

A natural reaction to the trauma of the pandemic is for people to become self-defensive—looking to keep themselves and their family members safe physically, Mollenhauer said. That defensiveness also applies to protecting their belief system.

“That’s the trap we’re all falling into right now,” he said. “What is their perspective that drives this? When you take the time to understand it, I think you’d find you don’t have to agree with it but you understand why it’s valid for that person. We’re really quick to judge. We’re very quick to politicize it, we all know that. The second you start down that path, it implies the other party is wrong, inept, or doesn’t have the facts. You’re not going to have any healthy conversation over turkey with that mentality.”

Being grateful

UnityPoint has seen an increase in mental health diagnoses, including depression and anxiety, during the pandemic. They’ve also seen some psychosis with prolonged long-haul COVID survivors.

“It’s been very difficult to find balance when your world and your structure that you were used to was thrown out the window,” Osborn said.

You should use these holidays to “surround each other with love and lift each other up,” she said.

“If anything I’ve learned through COVID it’s that I took a lot of things for granted. So, this holiday season, this is not something I want to take for granted. I want to spend it with you intentionally, connecting with my loved ones, showing appreciation and saying thank you. Thank you for sharing that. I know that that was incredibly challenging. This has been a really difficult year but I’m just so happy you’re here with me today. Being grateful,” Osborn said.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.