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Ten Tips for Talking Politics at the Holiday Table

You may see these people just once a year, how will you remember it?

If you're getting mentally prepared to spend a meal, a day, or a weekend with people whose ideologies and perspectives differ significantly from your own, are you also mentally gearing up for long, one-sided political diatribes? Many families enjoy talking about politics the way some families talk about their home state professional sports team: with a one-sided passion that guests are expected to share.

Talking about politics, however, is a little more personal, as politicians aren't just winning or losing for the sake of the entertainment it provides—they are arguing about legislative actions and economic decisions that can affect people's lives in ways much more personally than the outcome of an athletic contest.

Should You or Should You Not Talk Politics at the Holiday Gathering?

Decision Number 1: Can you avoid talking politics at the holiday table?

  • If “Yes,” that’s awesome and it frees you up to argue about whose team is doing better than the other’s team or some other topic for which you are equally passionate, but which is a little more familiar family conversation.
  • If “No,” is “talking politics” in your family really a euphemism for “arguing politics”? If not, then jump into the deep end and enjoy the conversation.

Decision Number 2: How far do you go, if talking politics is on the menu?

If “political conversations” turn quickly into “political warfare” and that’s okay with everyone on all sides, then jump into the deep end and enjoy the skirmish.

  1. Lay ground rules first. If family members want to argue politics, and there are clear factions among the group, it might be wise to lay some ground rules before the battle turns ugly. Beyond limiting the mind-altering substances, such as caffeine or alcohol, some other helpful ones might include:
  2. Criticize political actions or legislative issues, don’t criticize the family member who supports them.
  3. Don’t belittle family members whose beliefs don’t match your own. This can create lasting grudges and hurt feelings that can mar family gatherings for years.
  4. Keep the conversation as positive as possible by focusing on the good things that political figures are trying to do, not just the questionable or incomprehensible actions.
  5. Remember that family members feel allegiance to and a sense of shared identity with their candidates and officeholders just like an enthusiastic sports fan tends to do. When you insult their “pick,” family members feel as if you have insulted them.
  6. When you stumble into a topic that has a “hair trigger feel,” invite your family member to help you better understand their point of view. Ask questions, be curious, be open to hearing how your family member sees the world.
  7. When asked to share your opinions, do so with maturity and focus on facts, not emotions. Caring deeply about a topic will come through in your discussion, but maintain respect for the ones in the room who don’t share your feelings. Model for your family how to discuss sensitive topics without doing harm.
  8. When things start to head into directions from which there may be no room for friendly debate, change the subject by throwing in a question about the point of dissension in such a way that it switches the track like a railroad station switch might do. If you’re headed into topics like gun control, change the subject and find a memory of when you learned to hunt. If you’re headed into women’s rights, ask your great-aunt to talk about what it was like to be the only woman in the family to ever serve in the armed services. Find some link that is a natural segue and brings the topic home to a shared memory or family narrative that puts a positive spin on a topic that is spinning into chaos.
  9. Remind yourself that families are not chosen, so you really should not let their political leanings or diverse views influence what you feel your role in the family should be. You don’t have to change their minds or lead them to a new place of understanding, you just have to fulfill the basic family obligations that are expected of you, then feel free to spend the rest of the weekend socializing with the folks you choose.
  10. If you want to truly affect change in the world, you might have better luck reaching beyond the family and joining up with others who see the world the way you do; there’s power in numbers. However, convincing Aunt Margaret to stand up for her rights as a senior citizen and help her write a letter to her representatives is creating a significant change in itself. Start local, think global. And remember that if it weren’t for your family, you wouldn’t be who you are today. Offer gratitude to them for that turn of events in itself.