Navigating new social norms

Social gathering

During Covid lockdowns at the height of the pandemic, we knew how to play by the rules. Most of us were on the same page. While it was challenging, it was also helpful to know the boundaries and to work within them. Now, however, people are emerging from their bubbles at their own pace. Some still cower when they get too close to other humans, while others embrace. Many are someplace in the middle. No matter your stance on this, there are some common questions I get asked about all the time. While there is no absolute right answer to each question, here are my thoughts:

Q: Is it impolite to directly ask someone if they are vaccinated or not before agreeing to be in their company?
A: Keeping in mind that it’s often not what we say but how we say it, if you ask with a polite tone and respectful words, I think it’s socially appropriate to ask. If you’d prefer, you can soften the question with something like: “Do you mind if I ask if you’re double vaxxed?” You don’t need to justify your question with something like “it’s just that I’m immune compromised”. You have a right to ask. What you shouldn’t do is ask to see proof. This is where trust comes into play.

Q: My family is pressuring us to attend a function with a lot of people at an indoor setting. We don’t feel ready. How can we decline the invitation without insulting them?
A: I think that we need to be honest but kind and respectful. An appropriate response would be something such as “We’d love to see you, but we’re not comfortable being around many people right now. We’d love to take a rain check.”

What you can’t expect is for guests to conform to your request for everyone to wear a mask, for example. However, if wearing a mask or taking other safety precautions enables you to attend, then that is your choice. Do what’s right for you.

Q: How should I respond to an angry, unvaccinated friend who is upset at me for not wanting to meet her indoors?
A: Many relationships have been compromised as a result of people being on opposite sides of the Covid fence. It’s best if neither side is critical or judgemental. It’s also important not to put yourself in a position that compromises your beliefs about staying safe.

Perhaps you can work on a compromise so that you can meet in person outdoors? If your friend chooses not to, and you end up meeting indoors to make him or her happy, then you may feel angry and resentful about this. So, stand firm but fair.

Q: Most people know that it’s ill advised to debate religion or politics at a dinner party with friends. Should vaccinations be included on the list of topics to avoid?
A: Yes, likely so. However, if you’re with others who you’ve previously debated with and with whom, relationships have subsequently remained intact, then it may be okay. For the most part, however, these discussions are likely going to lead you down a dangerous path, especially because people on both sides of the debate are equally as passionate. So, if conversation turns to whether to vaccinate or not, then you may say something like “I think that like politics and religion, the vaccination debate is best left out of dinner table discussions.” If, despite your best effort, the conversation continues, you could politely excuse yourself from the dinner table.

Q: How should I respond to someone who puts his or her hand out to shake mine, or goes in for a hug?
A: I recommend to look inside of yourself, trust your gut rather than following what others are saying or doing, and to do what makes you comfortable. If you’re doing the approaching, you may want to inquire about the other person or people’s comfort level and then respond accordingly. If someone approaches you and you’re not comfortable with touching or being in such close proximity, how about rather than turning away, respond with an alternative such as “how about we bump elbows for now?”

Q: What if I want to have a small social gathering but I’m worried that people will get sick from others at the party?
A: I think that it’s acceptable to request that anyone attending the party adhere to certain safety protocols such as being fully vaccinated, for example, and to respectfully request that they decline if they do not. Even then, to ease others anxieties and potentially your own, you may request that guests sanitize when they arrive (asking them to wash their hands is not as acceptable), put out a roll of paper towel rather than leaving a hand towel for everyone to use in the bathroom, and maybe leave a container of disinfectant wipes for people to use if they please. If you don’t feel comfortable greeting guests with a list of rules, you may want to send them in advance, along with the invitation, so that they know what to expect

Q: What’s the best way to manage family dynamics when one or more people have decided not to vaccinate? Should we automatically exclude them from the gathering?
A: This is a highly contentious and conflictual situation and can create a great deal of divisiveness and resentment within a family unit. Siblings may resent one another for taking a different approach to being vaccinated or socializing with others and may blame one another for creating disruption or disharmony in the family unit. The ideal approach would be one of fairness and trying to come together in a way that meets everyone’s needs, despite a pervasive belief that people who are choosing to remain unvaccinated experience the “consequences” of not being included. This approach often puts parents of adult children, in particular, in the difficult position of having to choose sides. There’s no easy or simple answer to this.

Q: What can I do to help myself feel safe at a workplace or when in social situations/eating at restaurants?
A: You can make sure that the restaurant staff are asking for vaccination records, that your host or workplace has created a space that feels safe (and that you can make appropriate requests for extra safety precautions, if needed), that others are following similar safety precautions as you, that disinfectant is available and that you are not being asked to put yourself in a position that makes you feel compromised or uncomfortable.

This is a good time to put your own needs first and to recognize when you are feeling pressured to do what makes you feel unsafe. While it’s considerate not to want to offend others, make sure that it’s not at your own expense.