Two years ago, there was a debate, that led to a referendum, that led to a result, that led to households being split in two. When families realised that they stood on different sides of the Brexit chasm, daggers were drawn, and feuds were started. This made the holiday season after Brexit very challenging for a lot of people, and it still is. Recently I was reminded that it’s not just Brexit causing this kind of tension. At a communication workshop that I gave in Stockholm, somebody asked me, ”how do you speak to anti-vaxers?” She was thinking about talking to members of her family over the holidays.
I think finding the answer to this question is almost synonymous with navigating our way out of our post-factual quagmire. In the short term though, it might just be the way to get through dinner without murdering one of your relatives. Here’s my best attempt at an answer.
First of all, you have to remember and be prepared for what happens when someone brings up that they’re not vaccinating their kids when you’re sat at the dinner table. Your blood goes from 37 to 500 degrees in less than a millisecond as you prepare to bombard them with the weight of the scientific literature before you’ve even swallowed your mashed potatoes. At this moment, you need to be quiet. Swallow your food, count to 10, breathe deeply and feel the rage subside.
Now, with all the sincerity that you can muster, ask them to explain why they aren’t vaccinating their children. Only a sincere question will work here. Anything remotely aggressive, patronising or demeaning will derail your chance of a meaningful discussion. As they start to explain, listen and try find the context that drives their belief (spoiler alert, they’re worried for their child’s wellbeing). Listen and ask more questions until they have nothing else to say. It’s important that you give them the opportunity to get everything out of their system. Be thoughtful and be silent at times to encourage every last thought to make its way out into the air.
Once they have been able to fully articulate their point of view unimpeded and without being made to feel like an idiot, they will probably ask you what you think. At this stage if you can keep your cool, it might just be possible to have a real discussion about vaccination. When you talk, remember to not be judgemental and remember the context that you both find yourself in. You have the luxury of a strong and current scientific knowledge which they might not have. They don’t know anyone with measles, or mumps but they know plenty of people with allergies and who have autism. As ridiculous as it might feel, these threats are far greater in their mind. There is a lot do dismantle before you get to building your own scientific arguments with them. Be patient.
Be very patient. Communicating science via anger and contempt is really not working and I don’t think that will change over the holidays. We need to be empathetic to people who see things differently and back away from outright confrontation from the very beginning. We need to take responsibility for this because frankly, if we don’t who will?