Navigating the politeness minefield in the COVID-19 era, a bioethicist has some tips

Containment had made many accustomed to staying in their bubbles with limited interaction; difficult conversations were limited and greetings were relegated to the background.

But what happens to etiquette when you're unconfined, should you should kiss someone on the cheek, invite an anti-vaccine colleague to your wedding or even ask if they've been vaccinated when you first (re)meet them?

The Canadian Press asked Vardit Ravitsky, associate professor of bioethics in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Montreal, for some advice on navigating social relationships in the pandemic era.

Can you ask someone whether or not they are vaccinated?

"In my opinion, it is ethically preferable and even responsible to ask the question," said Ravitsky in a phone interview. "First of all, to know how to behave. If the person is not vaccinated, it's better to keep a distance, to put on masks, to take precautions that would not be necessary to take with a vaccinated person.

"Asking the question is also a more delicate way of making the unvaccinated person understand that his or her choice may create a barrier.

"In other words, it's a way of showing expectations or limitations. It shows the person where you stand on the issue."

Ravitsky said the good thing about this situation is that it can encourage people who are hesitant to get vaccinated to take the plunge if they see that their decision may be problematic or create discomfort with their loved ones.

"It's a good way to encourage a friend or family member to join the group effort without forcing them," she said.

Ravitsky doesn't recommend avoiding the "just to be polite" question.

"It's not about politeness or privacy, it's about public health," she said adding that it is a social responsibility especially since this issue represents an opportunity to have a dialogue about vaccination.

What if we are uncomfortable discussing it?

The bioethicist acknowledged that this is an "extremely difficult conversation" to have.

"I have unvaccinated friends too," she said.

She said, however, that the exchange is worthwhile because it can save lives, since the majority of new coronavirus deaths are related to people who have not been vaccinated.

"Every person we convince is a life that is potentially saved," she said. "The most important thing is to empathize and consider the other person's point of view.

"It's important to understand where the resistance is coming from."

She also stressed the importance of maintaining a respectful attitude and tone.

She admitted that there is little chance of convincing someone who has been opposed to the vaccine from day one to change their mind.

On the other hand, talking to someone who still prefers to wait or who has particular concerns will lead to a more reasonable discussion.

With respect to weddings, should those who oppose the vaccine be removed from the guest list?

Ravitsky said it would be a shame not to send invitations to people who are still not vaccinated, but, again, the professor sees a wedding invite as an opportunity to encourage those around her to roll up their sleeves.

"It's an opportunity to create a new social norm," she said, "adding a note that welcomes those who have been vaccinated twice, for example."

And when it comes to gatherings, celebrations and parties, there are opportunities to say hello.

Can you kiss someone or give them a hug when you meet them?

Ravitsky is currently in Israel where the majority of the population is vaccinated.

In the field, she noticed that it has become normal to approach someone and ask about their comfort level.

In the last few days she has heard all kinds of answers. "No mask, no kiss or with a mask the kiss is OK, while others are comfortable with the face even without a mask," she said.

Each person, she points out, now has "their own comfort zone" and it's important to respect each person's desire.

-- this article by The Canadian Press was first published in French on July 31, 2021. 

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