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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

There’s no etiquette manual for dealing with conspiracy theorists. I realized the consequences of this recently when I met a conspiracy theorist in a bizarre encounter.

My friend and I were driving along Lakeshore Road, west of Toronto, when we saw a sign for an estate sale. An estate sale in a suburban neighbourhood where homes regularly sell for more than $7-million? We were intrigued. There was the prospect of high-end goods at low prices, not to mention the chance to peek inside a fancy home, the likes of which we millennials will never own. But there was also, as I hoped, the opportunity to do something I’ve come to miss throughout this pandemic: chat in person with someone new.

The sale wasn’t quite what we had in mind. It was a giant yard sale, spread out in a large backyard assembled around a massive swimming pool. There were hundreds of items and a lot of it reminded me of what I might find at Value Village – for much cheaper. We browsed for a few minutes. From behind my mask (we’d put them on in anticipation the estate sale would be inside) I chatted politely with the mask-less man and woman overseeing the sale. We talked about how hot it had been, how inviting the pool looked.

The woman told us there was a jewellery display just inside the house. She encouraged us to check it out. She also encouraged us to take off our masks and “breathe that air.” We agreed to look at the jewellery, though we opted to keep our masks on. It was what we were comfortable with. It was also, we thought, a courtesy to whomever owned the house we were about to go into.

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Through the sliding glass doors and into the kitchen, there was a large counter filled with costume jewellery displays and dozens of aloe plants. We thought we were alone until a woman appeared and said hello. We chatted freely for a few minutes about anything and everything, from her superior health to the recent purchase of her tombstone.

Then she suggested we take off our masks. “Breathe that air,” she said. I assumed she was just being polite and told her we were happy to keep them on. She asked if we were vaccinated. I said yes, then made the mistake of asking if she was.

“No!” she boomed, before launching into a series of wild ideas about the vaccine, COVID-19 and the government. I won’t repeat them here. They don’t need any more exposure.

The woman was zealous in her beliefs, like any good missionary. She assured me she was simply telling me the truth because she liked people and wanted to help me. Her version of “helping me” included telling me I’d soon be dying in the hospital – from the vaccine, not COVID-19.

“Come back and see me in a year,” she said skeptically.

In a pitiful attempt to defuse the situation, I joked that I would, gladly. I’d even take a swim in her swimming pool.

Soon, the woman said something so outlandish and cruel about a national politician, I told her it was time for us to leave. She protested and was clearly upset. She’d been enjoying the conversation and was, from what I could tell, lonely. She’d started our chat by telling me she was 75 and her family never came to visit.

It was my first real experience talking to someone committed to lies about the vaccine and COVID-19. I know people who don’t want to get the vaccine, but no one who holds such delusions. And it taught me some sad but hard truths about the time we’re living in.

Sad but hard truth No. 1? There is no etiquette book on how to deal with people who have fallen prey to the strangest and most dangerous ideas. I still think about what I said and how I said it. Should I have disengaged? This was my friend’s approach. He stayed silent the entire time and later suggested we ought to have just commented on how beautiful that sparkly peacock brooch was before extricating ourselves from the situation.

But I couldn’t not engage. I was curious, sure, and I often wonder if the impulse to disengage is the equivalent of sticking our heads in the sand. Still, I cycle between wondering if I was too rude or not rude enough. How much scorn is useful in such situations? Is letting a conspiracy theorist tell you what they think helpful or a hindrance? Does it enable their viewpoints?

I realize now I was never going to change that woman’s mind. There wasn’t enough time, nor was there any trust between us. What’s more, I’ve learned that people cling to disinformation to help understand complicated events, particularly when the truth might prove too overwhelming or difficult to accept. I could try to convince that woman of the science. I couldn’t help her with the feelings of anxiety and fear that might come from it.

I know those feelings and I have them, too. I feel sorry for that woman, that her anxiety finds refuge in conspiracy theories that put so many people at risk, including herself. That might come across as patronizing, but I assure you she feels sorry for me. She told me so. According to her, I’m on borrowed time.

This brings me to the other unsettling thing I learned from the experience. We all have so much in common, no matter what we believe. At its core, my conversation with that woman revolved around concern for each other’s well-being and a desire to help, however misguided and one-sided it might have been in reality. Standing there in her kitchen, surrounded by her aloe plants, I saw what holds us as a society together. I also saw what we’re up against.

Melissa Gismondi lives in Oakville, Ont.

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