How to talk to unvaccinated people

Even those who may seem to fit the stereotype at first glance may have more to tell. Steward, for example, is a Christian pastor living in rural South Carolina with a conservative lean. But his hesitation was not because of his religion or his politics; it was because he was trying to understand the FDA approval process and how the vaccine would affect his health.

People are complicated and their reasons for not getting the vaccine are personal. Respect these reasons and you could have a more productive conversation.

See if the person is open to the conversation. Steward admits he wondered if the covid was real, if the vaccines really made sense, and if he had any options besides the vaccine. But he was still open to having a conversation. “If I wanted to make the right decision, I needed to hear opposing points of view,” he says.

Someone in the 14% of Americans who have decided not to get the vaccine probably won’t be open to anything you say. Maybe it would be a better use of your time and energy to just step back.

Be nice or at least courteous. Maybe you are enraged by what someone is saying, or you have a hard time understanding. But the person you are trying to communicate with will immediately kick you out if you are disrespectful. As I mentioned in a previous article on talk to conspiracy theorists, berating or disrespecting someone automatically closes the door to any discussion that might otherwise take place.

Identify the obstacle. For many unvaccinated people, the problem is not so much that they are opposed to vaccines, but that they need help getting one. Perhaps they are afraid of needles or have a hard time figuring out how to get a date. Maybe they’ve heard about the side effects and won’t be able to take time off work if they’re not feeling well. Ask them if there is anything you can do to ease their burden or help remove a barrier.

Consider the humble text. As i wrote before, confronting people on social media – in Facebook posts, Twitter replies, Instagram comments – is not helpful and can upset others. If you feel pressured to respond to someone posting questions about the vaccine, choose a more private route, such as texting.

Tailor your argument to the person. Much of the message regarding vaccinations involved either commands (“Get the vaccine now”) or implicit shame (“If you don’t get the vaccine, you are a bad person”). It may be more effective to use language that reinforces the fact that the vaccination process is in the hands of the individual.

Daniel Croymans, UCLA System Physician, recently co-directed a to study in which he discovered that the language of “ownership” helped people get to their appointments for the covid-19 vaccine. Proprietary language refers to words suggesting that the vaccination depends on the person: “Claim your dose” or “The vaccine has been made available to you”, for example. In Croymans’ study, texts with proprietary language were notably more effective in getting older people with pre-existing illnesses to their first date than texts that included informational messages. “If you think it’s yours, then you’re more likely to like it and appreciate it,” Croymans says.

Croymans says the study underscores the importance of creating personalized messages that empower rather than shame people who are hesitant to vaccinate. Anyone who wants to help persuade others to get the shot can try the same tactic.

When talking to an unvaccinated person, consider their specific concerns and try to respond to them in a way that you find relevant. Don’t use jargon or gossip. Repeat the concerns the person shared to show that you are listening, and think about what might make you feel reassured if you felt the same way.

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