Nicole Hunt thought she was just making small talk with the next person in line when she asked whether he’d been vaccinated.
But she soon found she’d run afoul of the shifting social mores surrounding this prickly question.
Hunt said she and the stranger were waiting for ice cream when they started commiserating over how ready they were to be done with COVID-19 restrictions.
For the mother of four in Oakville, Ont., getting her first shot was a promising step toward that goal.
But when she asked her in-line interlocutor if he had his jab, Hunt discovered he held a starkly different view.
“It just went to this awkward silence of us looking at each other and realizing that maybe we don’t really have anything to say.”
The faux pas exemplifies the murky social minefield one must navigate to inquire about someone’s COVID-19 vaccine status.
Members of polite society are polarized over whether it’s appropriate to ask people if they’ve rolled up their sleeves.
Some Canadians balk at what they see as an intrusion into personal health matters, but others maintain that vaccine disclosure is part of pandemic decorum.
It’s all part of an evolving etiquette that pits personal safety concerns against respect for medical privacy, say experts, who recommend taking a delicate touch to the vaccine question in the interest of both public health and social harmony.
“Some people will want to call people out, but I encourage people to really invite people into conversations,” said Dionne Gesink, a professor of epidemiology at University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Gesink said there are a few things you should ask yourself before putting the vaccine question to someone else.
First, she said, why are you asking the question? And what do you plan to do with the answer?
COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to prevent serious illness and death. But the science of how they affect the spread of the virus is still emerging, and even double-dosed individuals are still susceptible to infection.
The ongoing vaccine rollout has left Canadians with varying degrees of protection, said Gesink. Questions about vaccines should come from a place of concern not only for your personal health, but the safety of those around you.
Knowing someone’s immunization status can help people make informed decisions about how to mitigate the risks of in-person interaction through a spectrum of precautions, she said, including socializing outdoors, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.
Under certain circumstances, people may have to set hard boundaries, such as not inviting someone to an indoor function.
But with the right framing, the vaccine question doesn’t have to be contentious, and can even bring people closer, she said.
A point-blank “are you vaccinated” can end a conversation with a curt yes or no, said Gesink. But posing open-ended questions, such as “what are your thoughts on vaccination,” can prompt revealing discussions.
“By asking these sensitive, personal questions, you are investing in the relationship … as well as protecting yourself.”
But Gesink cautioned against “dropping bombs” on unsuspecting strangers and acquaintances who may feel wary about sharing their health history with someone they hardly know.
She added that if there’s any ambiguity about someone’s vaccine status, it’s best practice to assume they’re not and protect yourself accordingly.
Thankfully, many Canadians are quite forthcoming — if not effusive — about the fact that they’re vaccinated, said University of Toronto bioethicist Kerry Bowman.
But he harbours serious reservations about pressuring people to divulge personal health information.
There are many reasons why someone might not be vaccinated, he said, such as not meeting the eligibility requirements, barriers to access or medical concerns.
“People can easily be put on trial as to why they don’t want to be vaccinated,” he said. “Do they really have to answer to the whole world?”
Ottawa-based etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau noted that health is one the last remaining taboos in modern society, so it’s unsurprising that social protocols surrounding vaccines are so sensitive.
If you’re tempted to broach the question, Blais Comeau recommends pausing to contemplate the potential consequences if the interaction goes awry.
“From the perspective of the other person, could you be friend or foe?” said Blais Comeau. “If you could be perceived as foe, well, maybe it’s best not to ask.”
Consider the context of the relationship, she said. For example, with a professional colleague, power dynamics could be at play. In family situations, she warned the question poses the risk of inflaming long-standing tensions.
When it comes to entertaining, Blais Comeau suggested that rather than asking guests to tick off what shot they got in their RSVP, hosts should state their vaccine preferences upfront and ask attendees to accommodate them.
People should extend the same courtesy, respect and empathy that they expect from others, whatever their vaccine status, said Blais Comeau. And if discord arises, compassion is the best strategy to find resolution.
“It’s not the time to judge, shame or preach,” said Blais Comeau. “The magical word could end up being, I care about you.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2021.