What's Tony Thinking

How To Talk With an Anti-Vaxxer


A reader recently wrote to ask my advice. The subject? Talking about COVID vaccination with an anti-vaxxer.

Just to flesh the picture out a bit, the anti-vaxxer in question is my reader’s hairstylist (of ten years). But when the topic of vaccination came up, my friend was stunned to hear from her stylist, college-educated and mask-wearing, that she thought the whole COVID thing was a global conspiracy, the virus not that dangerous, and vaccines insufficiently proven.

There are two separate, but related, issues here. Do you patronize a service-provider with whom you are in physical contact (hair stylist, masseuse, pedicurist, etc.) who has not been vaccinated? The answer to that seems to involve your comfort level. Is the provider taking precautions, e.g. masking? If so, you may be comfortable continuing to use their services, even if they are not vaccinated. Or not. It may seem too risky, even with precautions taken. Your call.

The second issue is talking with someone who has a different take on vaccination than you do. Now, I can imagine that there are some vaccination-skeptics whose reasons for not being vaccinated are sort of reasonable. Say, a pre-existing health condition or a bad experience with a previous vaccine.

But it’s a different ballgame when the person with whom you are in conversation seems caught up in conspiracy theories, doesn’t think COVID is all that serious and prefers to rely on one of the off-brand remedies touted by he who shall not be named — all of which were true for the hair-stylist in question.

Of course, such a person might not be someone you are paying for a service, but your weird Uncle Al, or someone you find yourself sitting near to on a crowded beach this summer. What do you say? Anything? Nothing? Something? Move on down the beach, with haste? Tell Uncle Al that calls and email will do just fine for the time being?

My inquiring reader, a person of profoundly humane instincts, was hoping to build bridges not walls. What to do?

With respect to a service provider, I think my reader made a good choice. After the appointment, she indicated to her hair stylist that she would be happy to see her again when she had been vaccinated, but not until then. Eminently sensible and straight-forward.

But what if it is your weird Uncle (or Aunt, why are Uncles always the weirdos?) or a stranger on the beach? Those who try to keep such conversations civil and productive suggest that the thing to do is ask questions.” Tell me why you feel that way?” “What experience and/ or evidence has influenced your thinking?” While I am not entirely sure I have the patience for such appreciative inquiry myself, I’m sure it is a good idea.

With this caveat. My experience in talking with people who are committed to a conspiracy theory or an ideology is that it is seldom an actual conversation, you know, he says something, then you say something to which he listens. More often in those cases I find myself listening to a monologue while trying desperately to find a way to break into the Niagara-like flow. If it’s someone who’s working on your body and has you captive, that is seriously bad news. Need I say — don’t go there ever again?

If, however, there is an actual possibility of conversation, asking the questions noted above is probably a good strategy. But it also good to state your own position, and to answer those questions from where you sit. Why do I feel this way? What experience, evidence am I basing my decisions on? Although in the present time it may be hard to imagine, people can actually disagree without being disagreeable.

For me the fundamental determination is whether you are engaging in a give-and-take actual conversation or listening to an ideological monologue? If the former, be patient, honest and curious and share your own thinking with humility. If the latter, save your breath and your time.

I welcome the wisdom, undoubtedly wiser than my own, on this vexing topic from you readers of “What’s Tony Thinking?” If I get some helpful ideas I’ll report them in a subsequent blog.

And, of course, when all else fails in dealing with a troubling/ troubled person, pray for them.



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