This holiday season, many of us are discussing topics with loved ones that may have seemed unimaginable just a year ago. “What do you mean, you aren’t coming to your cousin’s house for the holiday party? We’ve been going there for 20 years!” “Tell me why I should wear a mask in my own home!”
If you find yourself anticipating challenging conversations about travel plans (or no travel) and pandemic-related safety precautions for all sorts of gatherings, here are some tips that can help you communicate your own needs while still showing family and friends you care about them.
How to open the door for discussion — and when
Success comes from the how and what of communications.
First, decide which mode of communication is best for this topic and loved one. Does email allow for some space and time to process and then respond, or is it too impersonal? Would a Zoom call further more of a connection and a chance to share questions and thoughts in the moment? Or does it add an unwelcome layer of vulnerability in seeing and being seen? What about a phone call or, if possible, an in-person conversation? Being strategic about your approach in consideration of who you plan to talk with can make a big difference.
Second, think about timing. While many of us find that local restrictions and safety recommendations change on a weekly or even daily basis, the sooner you can make a decision about holiday plans, the better. A holiday meal or family gathering is no easy undertaking even in the best of times, so communicating early saves undue stress all around. Waiting to opt out until the last minute will likely not only disappoint the host, but may also create feelings of anger or bitterness.
Agree on ground rules around COVID safety
If you do plan to attend a gathering, even a simple walk or any in-person get-together, it’s wise to negotiate safety norms in advance that are acceptable to all. If you try to sort out mask-wearing and how far apart to stay after you arrive, chances are the casseroles (and warm feelings) will be stone cold by the time you reach agreement. How long to linger, food safety rules, and comfort levels with other people’s approaches to bubbles and COVID safety are important, too.
People rarely see eye-to-eye on everything; they simply need to feel comfortable with ground rules they can respectfully agree on. Know that if you’re in the minority during pre-event negotiations, you get to decide whether or not to put yourself in a situation that may feel unduly stressful or unsafe to you.
These can be hard conversations, and it’s important to be clear in advance about the messages you want to impart. A challenge of these times is that while “I’m staying away” or “I’m staying six feet away” may be intended as clear messages of love and caring, they may not be received in the same spirit.
Start with the love — “I really wish we could be together this holiday” or “I really wish I could give you a hug” — and share your reasoning for your decisions as simply, clearly, and confidently as you can. Taking a less personal and more objective approach may help to minimize the disappointment, hurt, or anger of the other person: “As a front-line worker, I’m clear that I’m not willing to risk infecting any of you” versus “I’m exhausted from my hospital work, and don’t have the energy to deal with our family dynamics when we all get together.”
Acknowledge other perspectives and views on personal risk
In these conversations, it’s also important to acknowledge other perspectives. None of us have perfect information to guide our everyday decisions about risk in the COVID era. Every person has different needs, desires, and tolerances for risk. It’s not about changing others’ beliefs, but about being able to create a space that invites curiosity and healthy conversations that can lead to a greater sense of mutual respect and understanding when you’re done. (“I’d feel safer being outdoors than indoors. Do you think there’s a way we could do that?” or “Since testing is free in the city, I’m wondering if we could each get tested shortly before we get together. What do you think?”) Sometimes this can lead to creative outcomes that work for everyone. And sometimes it’s okay to agree to disagree.
One last thought: nothing lasts forever. When we can take the long view — that these difficult decisions and conversations around gathering are just for now — this awareness may help us to be more gentle with ourselves and each other. There will be other holidays and gatherings, and reasons to be in closer community once again. Until that happens, gratitude for what is good in our lives, acceptance of what is not, and the ability to engage with one another with the best of intentions will carry us through.