As a nation of (mostly) people pleasers, asking uncomfortable questions isn’t in New Zealanders’ nature. But in a pandemic, it’s sometimes necessary. Here are some suggestions to help make the words come more easily.
We’re transitioning into a phase where we’re having more contact with more people, in retail spaces, at work and at social gatherings. The reality is, we’re still seeing high case numbers, and you’re still at risk of getting and transmitting Covid-19 when you’re vaccinated. As restrictions ease, all the protection measures we’ve become used to – masks, distancing – still need to be factored into our daily lives. And sometimes, we need to remind people of that.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve already had an interaction or two where you really wanted to ask someone to pop on a mask, or tell them they’re a little too close for your comfort.
The problem is, as a nation, we’re not great at direct language. Most of us would rather eat the wrong meal than “make a fuss” and send it back. Add to that a rise in issues like anxiety disorders over the course of the pandemic, and it’s easy to feel slightly paralysed when put on the spot.
Much like the “do you say something, or do you let it go?” debate women and minorities have been having with themselves for centuries, sometimes the language takes practice. Like a script, it can be easier to memorise a few lines first so that the words come more easily when you need them.
Asking someone if they’re vaccinated
First of all, why are you asking?
Assess your reasons for asking any of the following questions. Your only motivation should be that your health, or the health of others, is at risk. No one is obliged to tell you their vaccine status and in these already confusing times, asking a stranger or someone on Zoom for their vaccination status is provocative, regardless of their answer.
More generally, experts suggest asking any delicate Covid-19-related questions in private where possible, in a sincere, neutral tone and without assuming what the answer might be.
The direct method
If you have disabled, immunocompromised or medically fragile children (or fall into any of those categories yourself), then you may as well be direct. My colleague Emily Writes heads Awhi Ngā Mātua, a support group for parents with immunocompromised and medically fragile children, and has written an excellent guide in her newsletter this week on how to set boundaries to protect your children’s health.
She says: “Just ask: ‘Have you had your vaccination?’ or ‘Are you planning on getting vaccinated?’
She recommends drawing a very simple line in the sand: “I’m sure you understand that keeping our household safe is crucial for our child, so we’re requesting that everyone who comes to our house is vaccinated.”
In her excellent piece Planning for delta at a community level, Tina Ngata shares resources like posters you can put up outside your whare that give people a very clear idea of your expectations.
Of course, you don’t need an underlying health condition to justify your position.
- “Are you vaccinated? I’m really scared of catching Covid.”
It’s a perfectly reasonable request, and it centres your feelings, rather than any kind of mandate.
Some other humiliating variations to play around with (theoretically, making a dick of yourself puts others at ease):
- “Are you 2 jabbed 2 furious?”
- “You gotta be double V to hang with me.”
- “Have ya got ya dots?”
(I’m not sure if anyone who came up with the GotYaDot campaign has ever smoked weed, but this is a hilarious thing to ask other weed smokers.)
Planning an event
If you have concerns about planning or attending a group function with family or friends, using inclusive language like “we” on a group chat or email can sound less demanding than asking each person’s vaccination status.
- “We’re all double vaxxed, right?”
- “We should probably only go ahead if we’re all vaccinated.”
It makes it clear that “we’re all vaccinated” is the desirable outcome, without singling anyone out. If the answer from some people is “no”, one fair thing to do could be to put it to a vote.
- “Let’s vote: should we go ahead with unvaccinated people in attendance?”
If using Messenger or another group chat app, emojis can be a light, visual representation of the group’s needs without any one person or household having to explain their position.
Adding additional context that is based in fact can also help. Avoid using examples of people who got sick or went to hospital unless it’s someone in your shared close circle. “My friend’s daughter” or “my mum’s boss” are the types of unverified relationships commonly used to spread misinformation and they add nothing of value to a conversation.
- “There were 204 new cases yesterday. Is it OK with everyone if we only go ahead with vaccinated people present?”
Being inclusive of unvaccinated people
You may be accepting of the fact that one or some of your loved ones have refused the vaccine and there’s nothing you can say to change that.
They don’t stop being your loved one, so you may need to make alternative plans. We now know that you’re about 20 times less likely to transmit Covid-19 in outdoor settings. Instead of ostracising, you can suggest that everyone attend an event remotely or outside, with masks and/or distancing a prerequisite. Sure, it’s not ideal that everyone has to make concessions for one or two dissenters, but in the long run it may be better for your relationships.
- “To keep everyone safe, is it OK if we have Christmas lunch outside, picnic style?”
Asking someone to wear a mask
Again, setting boundaries ahead of time is the easiest way to avoid having to ask. Signs in the workplace or at your home, or “please wear a mask” sent in a message, can set your expectations.
If it’s a stranger – say a customer in a shop, or a courier or tradesperson who has come to your home:
- “Have you got a mask on you?”
- “Do you mind popping on a face covering?”
If you’re on friendlier terms, a light ribbing might be in order – a particularly satisfying approach between siblings.
- “Oi ugly, I don’t wanna look at that, cover it up.”
- “Poo your breath stinks, can you put on a mask?”
Telling someone they’re too close
Stating what you need can be a great way to establish distance, rather than giving an order.
- “Sorry, I need a bit of space”
- “I wouldn’t mind some space.”
You might want to ask someone to stay put while you finish up a task in a shared space:
- “If you haven’t got a mask, do you mind waiting over there for a sec? I won’t be long.”
Old habits can die hard when it comes to greetings, and you may find you have to curve a well-intentioned hongi or handshake from someone. Why not turn it into a dance?
Or a stretch.
Or you can simply say :
- “I won’t shake your hand, but good to see you again.”
- “Aroha mai, I’m not quite ready for that. Crazy times, ay?”
You can also go the less subtle route:
- Sing ‘Don’t stand so close to me’ by The Police at full volume.
- Beep loudly while walking backwards, ie the classic “back the truck up”.
- Say it with merch.
Responding to the response
We’ve focused on the asking, but how people react will naturally vary and there’s no guarantee your reasonable request will be met with a reasonable response.
It’s best to approach these things with an open mind and heart. Sure, I could tell you if someone yells at you or insults you that replying politely and then removing yourself from the situation is the best way to deescalate.
“I respect your feelings, I’m simply concerned for my/our health.”
It is. But if someone is rude to you, your feelings of anger or frustration are totally justified.
Do whatever feels right. The important thing is you tried.