How to talk to family and friends about vaccines

Ways to bring up vaccinations with family and friends that maintains relationships and sets healthy boundaries.

A group of friends talking and eating around a dinner table.
Source: iStock

Having conversations about sensitive topics can be difficult for anyone, especially something as personal as our health. It can be difficult to bring up topics such as health and vaccines with the people we love, set boundaries where needed, and reconcile the need for social connections to stay healthy overall.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends five steps for discussing vaccines with loved ones:

  1. Listen with empathy
  2. Ask open-ended questions
  3. Share trusted information
  4. Explain your own reasons for wanting to get vaccinated
  5. Lead by example

In a recent series of webinars, Dr. Ida Rubino, Katie Stanulis, and John Novello sat down with MSU Extension’s Michigan Vaccine Project to discuss how we can gather safely and talk about sensitive topics with the ones we care about.

One question that often comes up is, “Is it okay to ask family and friends if they’re vaccinated, and if so, how do I do that politely?”

John Novello, a licensed clinical social worker with the State of Michigan and Director of MSU’s Employee Assistance Program, explained that “the simple answer is yes, it’s okay. You really want to start with yourself getting some clarity, and actually thinking about what you are okay with and what you’re not okay with before you even get to a place where you’re going somewhere. Think about things like ‘are you going to be comfortable being around people that are not vaccinated?’ ‘How many people are you comfortable being around?’ ‘What kind of space does that look like?’ And then the most important thing is to have a conversation with those you will be around. The goal of the conversation isn’t to try to convince other people or talk them into being like you or thinking like you. The goal is simply to state where you’re at and get information so that you can all make good choices about what makes the most sense in terms of gathering.”

Novello also says that it’s important to discuss new social norms with family and friends before gathering. “Set up your gatherings and say something like, ‘hey, I’m uncomfortable going to places when people are having flu/cold/COVID symptoms, so as a group, can we agree that if somebody is having symptoms that they let us know beforehand so everybody has full information and can decide if they’re comfortable still meeting or not.’ You’re creating a culture of expectation or culture of open discussion about this” which can make everyone involved feel more comfortable with meeting together.

When discussing vaccines with her patients in the clinical setting, Family Physician Dr. Rubino says she aims to have conversations, “based on shared decision-making, but at the same time offering resources that are reputable.” In social settings, Dr. Rubino advises being honest and advocating for those you love. She says, “In my own family, there are people who have COPD and currently going through chemotherapy, so for them being exposed to something is risky. I think it’s very appropriate to say, ‘By the way, have you had any vaccines recently? We all love this person. We all love everyone who’s gathering, so if you don’t mind, are you feeling OK? Have you considered getting the vaccine? I’m really just trying to protect this family member.’”  

“I think part of vaccine hesitancy is that this generation has not seen vaccine-preventable diseases because many have been eradicated or nearly eradicated. So, I think we need to really refer people to reputable sources to read about vaccines. We need to be educated as medical people about the schedule and the changes and the efficacy of these vaccines. And it really is one of the best forms of prevention that we have.”

Dr. Rubino also emphasizes the need to stay connected, at the same time being mindful of those around you. “I think it’s important that we still gather. Stay at home if you’re sick; always wash your hands. If you’re going to shake somebody’s hand, wash your hands before you eat. Be aware of how germs are transferred. Get enough sleep, drink enough fluids, and eat healthy nutrition. And of course, get vaccinated.”

The big takeaway? “Be courteous. If you don’t feel well, don’t go to a gathering, and meet another time when you’re feeling better.”

Watch the webinars with Dr. Rubino, Katie Stanulis, and Jonathon Novello.

Help finding a doctor:

If you need help finding a doctor, try searching for primary care physicians in your area that are highly recommended, search your insurance provider’s website for doctors in your network, or ask for recommendations from friends and neighbors. There are also search engines that can help you narrow your search based on region and specialty needed.

Where can you find vaccines?

To find a vaccine, check with your primary care physician, local health departments, pharmacies, and clinics. You can also visit to locate a vaccine clinic near you.

If you would like to learn more about vaccines, check out Michigan State University Extension’s Michigan Vaccine Project to find links to event schedules, podcasts, publications, webinars, and videos relating to vaccine education.

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