Why You Should Talk Politics at Thanksgiving
The art of mixing politics with poultry.
Posted Nov 23, 2020
Every year, we gather with friends and loved ones to celebrate Thanksgiving, one of the most coveted holidays of the year. Good food, good company, good conversation—we hope. Despite having so many things to be thankful for, there is always one thing to consider—the perils of mixing poultry and politics. Yet because many people are passionate about political issues, many of them personal, social, and nonpartisan, you might not want to automatically ban political banter. Even if you anticipate a palette of colorful personalities around the table, there may still be a way to enjoy both good food and good conversation.
From Post-Election Polls to Poultry
Whether you are still counting votes or counting chairs around your dining room table to see if everyone will fit, a Thanksgiving guest list, due to the timing, often involves post-election considerations. Do you seat people depending on their political proclivities? Do you ban red MAGA hats at the table, but allow partisan banter after dinner out on the patio?
The reason we bring this up every year is that many Thanksgiving guests want to talk politics; and it is not all about the candidates. Many people enjoy discussing the types of kitchen-table issues that matter to everyone. Topics like jobs, health care, public safety, the economy, and education are subjects that interest everyone and are likely to come up. Such conversation can be lively, stimulating, and enlightening. Should potentially valuable discussion be banned merely because there might be differences of opinion? It depends on both the partisan proclivities and the communication skills of the speakers.
Hot Buttons and Hot Plates
For Thanksgiving guests and hosts who are passionate about social and political issues, it is frustrating to be told what subjects are or are not permissible at the table. And who enforces the ban? Topic policing itself can cause tension and resentment. But there are good reasons to consider social content restrictions because not everyone has mastered the art of civil discourse. Research corroborates this observation.
Katherine Qianwen Sun and Michael L. Slepian (2020) in a study aptly named “The Conversations We Seek to Avoid,”[i]introduced what they termed the Topic Avoidance Process Model. It proposed two distinct processes to use when a conversation partner broaches a topic the other partner seeks to avoid. They recognize such avoidance may stem from different motivations, and result in different emotional responses. Avoiding conflict may prompt a desire to leave the conversation, prompting annoyance. Privacy concerns may lead a conversation partner to remain quiet, creating anxiety.
Although Sun and Slepian studied conversation and emotion in the workplace, their findings arguably would apply to our Thanksgiving conversation as well. They found that not surprisingly, many people seek to avoid having conversations about topics such as politics, religion, money, and sex. They also note that for most employees, there is at least one domain in which they perceive they are in the minority. This can include anything from background, to hobbies, to personal preferences, to demographics. This can lead to concern that they will not fit in with the rest of the group if they discuss or reveal hidden social identities. Although Sun and Slepian give examples of sexual orientation and multi-racial backgrounds, we can imagine that political proclivities may similarly lead to reticence rather than assertiveness, especially in a social setting.
Rapport and Respect: Issues, Not Individuals
Because provocative topics can detract from the enjoyment of a celebration geared towards feeling thankful, not uncomfortable, who can and should mix poultry and politics? People who have mastered the art of engagement with tact and respect. Civility facilitates safe, stimulating conversation. As a career trial attorney, I am obligated to ensure that professional debate does not devolve into personal attacks. From the courtroom to the dining room, Thanksgiving conversation should similarly focus on issues, not individuals. Partisan political ideology should not detract from the love and loyalty of friends and family.
Yet in deciding whether you will entertain holiday partisan chatter, it depends on who you are inviting. If you are anticipating a like-minded political caucus, have at it. So too if you expect a respectful, mild-mannered group of dispassionate communicators. But if you anticipate a larger group of colorful personalities, consider designating the main event a politics-free zone ... perhaps designating a lively debate arena outside after dinner.
[i] Sun, Katherine Qianwen, and Michael L. Slepian. 2020. “The Conversations We Seek to Avoid.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 160 (September): 87–105. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2020.03.002.