Tread lightly with COVID conversation this holiday season

In this guest post, Dr. August Abbott, an Etiquette Expert and Relationship Counselor with JustAnswer, shares a few ways to navigate all things related to the COVID-19 pandemic during the holiday season.

While the pandemic may not be over yet, dawn is certainly on the horizon and this year’s holiday season has many families eager to regain a bit of normalcy, gather in person, give hugs and kisses and celebrate together again.

But for all the joy in reuniting again over turkey dinner, there’s likely to be a whole new dance to navigate involving masks, vaccinations, disinfectants and everyone’s personal views of the enduring COVID era.

While gatherings may be back, they may not be all the way back without an abundance of caution and some guests may have very strong opinions about it. In our first emergence post-COVID celebratory season, it’s also not going to be unusual for some people to have forgotten their manners or tact, if they ever had such proper behaviors to begin with.

Can we not just ask, but insist that everyone who comes through our door is vaccinated, masks or not? And can a dear, beloved relative or friend show up and expect entrance without a mask or vaccine while citing any number of excuses? What about the individual who staunchly cites personal freedom? Religious freedoms? Or insists that COVID is just a usual flu, if not a complete hoax?

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Here is your guide for “how to not only survive the holidays, but thrive”.

Let’s begin our emergence from the COVID caves with style and grace and send out actual invitations to everyone we love enough to want to include. In this invitation you must include that you’ll need not just to know who and how many will attend, but that they are fully vaccinated with at least two shots in the arm before attending, so hurry up and get in line at their local pharmacy if they aren’t because oh boy this year’s dinner promises to be one they’ll talk about for decades! Humor is key.

Once invitations are sent, brace yourself for the (let’s hope) rare self-absorbed response that decides you “can’t ask that,” or require it or any number of “I’m offended” reactions.

This is where you take one huge deep breath and refuse to react, but maintain your calm.

“I’m sorry this bothers you. I’m just trying to be safe not only for myself and mine, but for those who are vulnerable even if they’re vaccinated. Surely you can understand this right?”

And what about those who will not understand? One trick is to approach this kind of person as if they are obstinate children.

“I respect that your beliefs may differ, but with the same respect for my beliefs please honor that this is my gathering and my guidelines. I want you here so much, but I just can’t jeopardize anyone who might have a compromised immune system.”

When Mr. or Ms. Stubborn refuses then you have one last option to keep the relationship intact going forward.

“OK, well, how about I send you over a full plate of dinner and then you join us at the table with a video chat ?”

This may soften the encounter, if not change the stance and if it does not, all you can do is say that they will be missed and always loved.

Now that you’re all together with everyone mingling, there’s pretty much no way to avoid discussions about the only thing leading every source of news in the nation; in the world actually: COVID. If everyone is civil and honors the other person’s right and innate freedom to have their opinions, this can be a lively and even entertaining discussion. The truth is that discussing COVID and vaccinations is like politics and religion and really shouldn’t be allowed; however, this is the real world and only so much can be talked about with our lives over the last two years without COVID having something to do with it.

ExploreOPINION: Should kids under 12 get the COVID-19 vaccine?

A host needs to be attentive during these gatherings and act as a referee when discussions elevate in volume and tone. When dealing with particularly stubborn individuals, quietly, but firmly remind them that this is a happy gathering. By remaining even-tempered, smiling while telling them to dial it down, the host is exercising psychological control and triggering (hopefully) even the oldest adult’s childhood memory of behavior modification when mom or dad got serious with them. Next, casually move them away from each other.

We have to allow for some deep and interesting sharing of opinions though, but it should be more of a discussion than an argument; more of a differential, like between doctors with regard to a patient’s condition and appropriate treatment than a name-calling and judgmental fire to put out.

We can believe the earth is flat and put our beliefs forward to someone who believes it’s round and actual have a good time doing it. Then walk away with our beliefs intact and no hard feelings, and remind ourselves that their beliefs are really ‘none of our business’.

That phrase is a beautiful psychological tool toward inner peace in any situation, anywhere, anytime. “It’s none of my business” what anyone else does, thinks, says or believes. I am responsible only for my own actions, thoughts and beliefs. God bless free will and God bless America with free choice”

So if you’re hosting this gathering you need to do some self reflection. This won’t be the usual gathering where everyone discusses the meal, shares recipes, deems that you’re not roasting that turkey right or that your turkey is always the best they’ve ever had. The talk is going to be about current events and current events aren’t happy ones. It’s ugly out there, no question about it. So as a host you have one tough job ahead in keeping it less ugly inside the home.

You will be challenged in excluding certain people who refuse vaccination and refuse to acknowledge that this puts others at risk. You can’t argue with them because it won’t change anything and only waste your breath while elevating your blood pressure. Stay the course; be calm, be nice and be firm. Offer the alternative of video chat and be sure no one admonishes the non-attendee for their choice.

You will be challenged with guests discovering differences of opinions in the group and deciding they have to change the other person. Well this isn’t going to go well is it? So you become the grown-up and without them even knowing it, separate the two ‘children’ who are about to have massive temper tantrums in a quest to be the ‘winners’ in a race that can’t be run. Use humor a lot! We need it more than we might know.

Coming out of what can only be called humankind’s most recent, historical plague, talking about it, sharing experiences with what we’ve seen and done is normal. It’s how we reassure ourselves that we’re all on this planet together and we’re not that different. Our sharing doesn’t have to be about politics or conspiracy theories or whether or not mandates are right or wrong - it can be about how scared we were at first. It can be about what we’ve lost and who we’ve lost.

Mostly it can be about how truly happy we are that we’re all still here. That we are about to share good food and good company because we are survivors. Survivors! How is that not something to have one hell of a group hug over?

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