It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, everywhere we go, from the sight of inflatable reindeer on the neighbor’s lawn to the thought of Cousin Eddie in a dickey, drinking egg nog and talking politics at Christmas dinner.
Every family has a Cousin Eddie and every family’s holiday gathering holds forth the possibility of awkward or tense moments. But out of all the Christmas anxieties—overextended budgets and calendars, overcooked turkey and undercooked ham, inebriated cousins and argumentative uncles—nothing seems worse than having to “mix it up” politically with the odd assortment of people in our extended family.
In fact, nearly 60% of Americans say they dread having political conversations at a family holiday gathering.
But I’m here to tell you, “It’s OK. Don’t worry your elastic-waisted britches about it.”
If the conversation turns to politics, we can participate in a constructive manner with loved ones who are all over the spectrum politically.
How? Here are a few tips:
Set the tone.
Most importantly, we should help set the right tone by taking a conversational approach that combines respect, tact, and some personal warmth. Try to understand the other person’s point of view before responding. Pay attention not only to other peoples’ words, but to their motivations and goals. Identify shared goals and points of agreement so that you can find common ground. When you respond, do so with a little humility and good dose of respect. And for the love of all that which is good, don’t imply that everybody else’s views are self-evidently stupid and bad (even if that is the strategy of your favorite radio show host).
Consider telling a personal story.
In holiday political conversations, we shouldn’t expect too much. Chances are that we will not win people to our point of view in between forkfuls of Cousin Catherine’s congealed salad. But if you want to get your foot in the door, consider telling a story that illustrates your point of view. Tell a story about how you or somebody you know is being affected by a particular health care plan, tax reform, or immigration law. Many people will not carefully consider a list of reasons at the dinner table, but they might be open to hearing a story, especially if you don’t tell it to “score points.”
Refuse to be baited.
Listen, we realize that your Uncle Arlo’s entire approach to politics is based on the unshakable belief that everything said on his favorite radio show must be true and that everything you believe is stupid and bad. We are aware that Aunt Lurleen, when responding to the deepest political questions of the day, is content to give incandescently shallow answers and blame your political party for all of society’s ills. But hey, is it worth spoiling the evening’s squash casserole just to give Arlo and Lurleen the what-for? No, probably not. So instead of losing your temper and telling Arlo, “It’s amazing you’re able to talk politics so soon after your lobotomy,” just bite your tongue and take one for the team.
Admit it when you’re wrong or have overstated your case.
Be open to the possibility that some of your views or talking points may be at least partly wrong. Remember that your family members know things you don’t, just as you know things they don’t. And if you “step in it” by overstating your case or getting the facts wrong, use the opportunity to show some humility. It might be the perfect moment to build some trust and win their ear.
If needed, steer the conversation in a different direction.
Sometimes despite your best efforts, the conversation goes downhill quickly. My best recommendation? Change the subject. Compliment Uncle Lewis on his toupee. Ask Todd and Margo if they’ve finished the home renovations yet. Ask Aunt Bethany if Rusty is still in the Navy. Really, anything will do. And if that doesn’t work, you might even say, “You know, there’s nothing wrong with talking politics over a meal, but this year I’d rather talk about other things. Maybe we could talk about it another time?”
Go ahead, mix it up.
Roses are things which family political conversations usually are not a bed of.
For many Americans, having family conversations in today’s toxic political environment feels like having a bowling alley inside of our brains, with each family member hurling their own 13-lb. ball of opinions at our neural duckpins.
But this year it could be different. You could be the person who sets the tone. And, given that many Americans find ourselves locked in echo chambers, the holiday meal is one of the few times we’ll be together in a room with people who disagree with us and with whom we are obligated to talk.
So let’s make the most of it. Go ahead, mix it up with your grandfather who thinks we’re still in the 1970s. Get into it with your cousin who thinks socialism is great for the economy. But make sure you approach those conversations with respect, tact, and humility, doing unto others what you would have them do unto you.