Get ready for this year's hot topic at Thanksgiving dinner: Covid vaccines.
For the 196 million fully vaccinated Americans, the upcoming winter holidays could look like pre-pandemic times, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. But many families will still have to make tough decisions about gatherings that include unvaccinated people.
The first step is easy: Ask your guests about their vaccination status. Beyond that, there's a lot of grey area. Should you uninvite families with young kids who aren't yet eligible to get the Covid vaccine? Should all attendees get tested before gathering? And what do you tell your vaccine-resistant aunt?
Here are four ways to handle those types of tricky and awkward scenarios, so you can have a safe and conflict-free holiday.
Lead with compassion and kindness
Getting vaccinated is the best way to make your holiday gatherings safer. Even one dose will give you a degree of protection. And now that U.S. adults are eligible to receive booster doses, fully vaccinated people have another tool to optimize their protection ahead of the holidays.
But ironically, most pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine people have something important in common — which helps explain why vaccine conversations can get so heated.
"Both groups are actually pretty concerned about health and safety, and believe that what's at stake is of extreme importance," Afton Kapuscinski, an associate teaching professor and director of the Psychological Services Center at Syracuse University, tells CNBC Make It.
When the topic comes up, approach it with love and concern for everyone's health, rather than judgment, advises Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Think about how you'd feel if you were excluded from a family event, and how you'd want to be spoken to, Kapuscinski adds.
Just keep in mind that even with the best intentions and most careful wording, "there might not be a way of completely reducing the chance that someone's going to be offended," she says.
Avoid blaming language
For vaccine-hesitant people, Kapuscinski says, explanations of why the vaccines work often come across as personal attacks: You're selfish, anti-science and irrational.
So, try to avoid black-and-white thinking — because in reality, people are nuanced. A disagreement doesn't necessarily make someone a bad person, even on life-or-death topics like Covid vaccines, Kapuscinski says.
Her suggestion: Use "I" language, rather than "you" language. Instead of pointing a finger or saying, "Sorry, you're unsafe to be around," speak from your own perspective.
For example, you could say: "It's a hard decision for me, but I feel like the safest thing for me and my family is if you skip the party this year."
Find common ground
If you get into a vaccine argument, know this: You're unlikely to change the other person's mind. Even the attempt typically makes the other person dig their heels in harder, Kapuscinski says.
Instead, work to find common ground. Ask questions about why the other person is on the fence about vaccination, or whether there's any information that would help them decide. That's more likely to result in a productive conversation.
The same concept applies if the conversation does get heated: Acknowledge what's happening between the two of you in the moment, rather than focusing on the content of the argument.
You could say: "We're both getting angry, and we both care a lot. I really don't to let this get between us, because I love you. Maybe we shouldn't talk about it right now." Then, when you're in a calmer and more neutral setting — away from the dinner table — pick the conversation back up again.
Or, since people are more likely to listen to those who they trust, you could tactfully suggest that they consult a reliable expert: "Hey, would you just do me one favor — talk to a doctor that you trust, and see what they say? Let me know what you learn."
Consider making accommodations for people who are unvaccinated. If you're worried they won't accept compromise, try asking them anyway. "Don't assume that people won't do things," Kapuscinski says.
For example, you could turn to the mitigation strategies most Americans used before the vaccines were available — like gathering outdoors, wearing masks and maintaining social distance or asking your unvaccinated guests to quarantine and get tested before the event.
"Nothing is perfect. Nothing is going to be 100% effective," says Dr. Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. "The more of those mitigation strategies you do, the safer the event will be."
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