An Etiquette Expert Tells Us How to Handle Awkward Holiday Vaccine Talk

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It's safe to say that a lot has changed these past two years — especially when it comes to how we celebrate the holidays and the kinds of conversations we have around the table. After all, though it's now hard to believe, there was once a point in our lives when vaccine etiquette wasn't a thing.

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Unlike last year, you're likely planning to gather with a few people this holiday season, which leads us to the question on everyone's minds: How do you handle awkward vaccine conversations? For the answer, we reached out to Dr. August Abbott, the etiquette expert on JustAnswer, an expert question and answer website.

How do you politely ask about someone's vaccine status?

When it comes to inquiring about whether or not someone is vaccinated, Dr. Abbott says it's all about keeping your tone friendly and casual. "These days, it's not uncommon for people to ask perfect strangers in grocery stores, masked or not, 'All vaccinated?' while adding their own status: 'I've got all three!' or 'Two on board, one more to go!'" Dr. Abbott tells Hunker. "The more casual the question, and including your own information, [the more it] makes this subject as benign as talking about whether it looks like rain is coming in."

But, what if the person you're asking takes offensive to the question? "Gently explain that you're only asking because you're scared and you want them to help you feel less scared," Dr. Abbott advises. "You appreciate their opinion on the whole thing and you respect their right to choose for themselves, but you'd really like them to respect your need to know."

Is it possible to politely un-invite a guest who is unvaccinated?

This season, it's entirely possible that you invite a guest who turns out to be unvaccinated. If you're uncomfortable with that, Dr. Abbott suggests "honesty with kindness," and provides us with this sample conversation: "Uncle Jim, I will defend your freedom to choose to be vaccinated or not be vaccinated ... and I hope you'll understand my having to work something else out for you this time. I can fix a huge plate up for you and have it sent over. We can perhaps have you at the table via video chat. Between the two of us, we should be able to figure this out, right?"

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By attempting to include the unvaccinated person in whatever way possible, that should encourage them to help you problem-solve the situation.

Can you say that only vaccinated people are allowed at your gathering?

"Actually, that wording is just fine on any invitation," says Dr. Abbott, proving this example: "Please understand that we can only allow the vaccinated to attend in person. If you are unvaccinated, you're still invited to attend via video chat and we do hope you will."

What is the best way to ask someone what they're comfortable with when it comes to hugs, handshakes, kisses, and other greetings?

Dr. Abbott points out that even before COVID, it wasn't unusual for someone to ask about another's preference before moving in for a hug. After all, we all have different personal space boundaries. "Hug, handshake, fist bump, or elbow?" is what Dr. Abbott recommends asking, all with a sense of humor and acceptance of whatever the other person's answer may be.

How do you steer conversations away from political vaccine talk?

We all dread uncomfortable, political talk over the holiday season, but it's bound to happen. So, what is one to do? "My 'go to' response when someone becomes political and before they rev up to 'out of control' is, 'Oh dear, but I'm so overwhelmed with nonstop rhetoric from every political and personal viewpoint on this — I'm going to have to walk away unless you have a mute button somewhere?'" says Dr. Abbott. "Again, it's all in the delivery. Keeping your tone light and delivering the 'mute button' comment to end the sentence with humor will keep all but the truly obsessed at bay."

If your guest doesn't let up, Dr. Abbott advises to follow through on what you said and simply walk away. Take a moment for yourself in the bathroom or in whatever empty room you can find, and then make your way back to the party when you're ready.

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What is the #1 COVID etiquette rule everyone should be aware of?

Dr. Abbott recommends making your gathering a COVID-free zone — not only when it comes to making sure people are vaccinated, but also when it comes to conversation topics. "Ask that everyone behave with old-fashioned consideration in that the subjects of politics, religion, and now COVID be left at the doorstep and not brought up," she says. "Remind everyone that once they all go home, they can continue to be bombarded with non-stop news and political commentaries about all of it, but for today, for right now, this place is in a time without COVID, without divisive politics, without religion, and only love and respect for each other exists. For one day, everything is perfect on earth. So where's that drink?"

We like the sound of that. After all, after last year, it's important to remember that getting together with loved ones is a privilege that shouldn't be taken for granted or ruined with heated discussions.

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Anna is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who covers lifestyle and design content for Hunker. She's written for Apartment Therapy, the L.A. Times, Forge, and more. She previously worked as the lifestyle editor at HelloGiggles and deputy editor at So Yummy. Her email: anna.gragert@hunker.com