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How to talk to that family member over the holidays...

Dec 23, 2020

Remember Cousin Eddie — Randy Quaid’s lovable buffoon in National Lampoon’s Vacation series?

If you’ve seen the original films, you can’t have forgotten him, especially if you made it past the 40-minute mark of 1989’s Christmas Vacation, when Eddie and co. pay a surprise visit to the Griswolds’ Chicago home.

Maybe it’s Quaid’s show-stealing, iconic lines like, “Clark, that’s the gift that keeps giving the whole year,” when his cousin-in-law receives a slap-in-the-face Christmas bonus of a Jelly of the Month Club membership. Or maybe, like Clark, you can’t shake from your mind the image of Eddie emptying his RV’s toilet into the street sewer. Or perhaps it’s because your family has its own Cousin Eddie (and if you can’t point him out, it could be you).

But here’s the thing, in 2020: As a middle-aged, poorly educated man whose political beliefs can be assumed to reflect those of the actor playing him, Cousin Eddie is the classic anti-masker.

This holiday season, what’s the best way to talk to your own family’s lovable buffoon — your Cousin Eddie — about COVID-19?

Well, normal Christmas celebrations seemed far-fetched when this was written in mid-November. Daily cases of COVID-19 had reached record highs across Canada, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had begun tempering his earlier optimism that Dec. 25 could be business as usual.

But even if our in-person Christmases are cancelled, we still feel a need to connect with family, even if it’s over the phone — or, in true 2020 fashion, virtually over Zoom.

There’s an old adage about topics you’re supposed to avoid at a family get-together: religion, money, and politics. Pandemics aren’t on the list, but is there really anything else to talk about these days? Unfortunately, as all our Cousin Eddie's demonstrate, COVID-19 is political.

But broaching controversial topics at the dinner table isn’t always a bad thing, says Emma Frances Bloomfield, who teaches communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“It could be a fruitful (and) productive space for getting these big-picture topics out in the open with the people you care about,” she said.

Every expert interviewed for this story agreed that, when talking to family about mask-wearing and other public-safety guidelines, it’s important to start from a place of understanding.

To that end, it’s useful to know why your family’s Cousin Eddie has decided to join the anti-mask, anti-government-guidelines camp.

Dr. Olivier Drouin studied behavioural science at Harvard University, and continues to research human behaviour while working as a pediatrician in Montreal. He pointed out three things that contribute to an anti-masker’s beliefs: misinformation on social media; a desire to belong; and influential Americans’ pronouncements against mask-wearing.

Distrust of government, resistance to change, and individualism — the belief that individual autonomy and personal liberties are more important than collective values — could also contribute, said Bloomfield, who researches “science communication”: how to talk about polarizing topics like climate change. She’s also currently researching the anti-vaccination phenomenon.

It’s important to be understanding, and to stay civil, both when starting and ending a conversation, experts agree.

“To have a productive conversation with somebody you care about … and influence somebody who has ideas contrary to yours, the rule of thumb is to always approach (him or her) with empathy and respect, and some presumption that whatever (his or her) thoughts or feelings are, (he or she has) good reasons for them,” said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist based in the San Francisco Bay area and a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families.

Staying calm is also important, as is knowing you probably won’t win your case right away.

“It’s rare that a single conversation will change anyone’s mind on anything,” Bloomfield said.

When trying to convince a family member of the importance of following public health guidelines, the experts agree that establishing common ground is effective. For example, you’ll both agree you want the pandemic to end, and for life to return to normal as soon as possible.

You can also personalize the issue by, for instance, explaining that you suffer from a condition that makes you more susceptible to COVID-19.

And to avoid coming off as patronizing, you can improve dialogue by asking questions and comparing sources of information.

In researching a book she wrote on talking to climate-change skeptics, Bloomfield said she learned that “shifting your attitude to engagement was a really productive way to open people up, just to see different perspectives.”

And while you might not succeed in talking your relative into following all the rules, that doesn’t mean a chat isn’t worth having. An initial conversation could lead to further conversations, or to causing him or her to reflect more on the matter later. It might even encourage others who are listening in to follow the guidelines, she said.

“At least trying and having those conversations, to me, is making some kind of change,” Bloomfield said.

It might also help when Easter rolls around, and talk turns to the merits of getting the COVID vaccine.

And remember: At the end of the day, your “Cousin Eddie is family, after all."


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