With emotions running high and politics seeping into every part of life, how do you avoid letting a debate turn dinner into a disaster?
Whatever your opinion of the president, it’s hard to deny that his first year in office has cranked Americans’ political passions (and political fatigue) up to 11. So, with emotions running high and politics pervading everything from football to your coffee machine, how do you keep the perfect political storm from turning your holiday dinner into a disaster?
Larry Sabato Jr., the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said politics at the holiday table are best avoided or even banned.
“The nation is deeply polarized and dug in, especially about Trump, and no one is going to change their mind because of an argument at the dinner table,” Sabato said. “Indigestion and lasting hard feelings are much more likely to be the consequences.”
ANOTHER VIEW: Don’t avoid politics at Thanksgiving. Our democracy depends on it (from 2016)
Sabato said he remembers heated holiday moments with family about civil rights and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.
“No good came from holiday debates,” he said. “I missed one Thanksgiving dinner because of an argument about race that produced my walk-out. In retrospect, we should have set some ground rules and let it go.”
Here are some tips on how to make sure politics doesn’t stop the holidays from being great again from etiquette expert Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of the institute’s eponymous founder.
If you want to keep politics out of the holidays and are pretty sure your family and/or friends aren’t going to bring it up, then it’s best not to be the one to broach the subject.
“Don’t pre-emptively say things like, ‘I don’t want to talk about politics,'” Post said. Don’t overdo it if it’s really just not going to be a huge issue at your Thanksgiving.”
Then there are the folks who always love talking politics. Maybe they relish the divisiveness, or maybe they really enjoy talking to people of different political views, but whatever their motive, you don’t want to deal with it.
In that case, “you can absolutely talk to any other individual guest or family member that you feel you would need to and say, ‘I know we’ve had great political conversations in the past, but this year I really don’t want to engage in politics.'”
“Let’s say that politics do come at the dinner table, it’s perfectly fine for you to redirect the conversation,” Post said. “We just advise that you don’t try to correct or put down anyone while doing it.”
“So, rather than saying, ‘I don’t want to hear that kind of talk,’ or, ‘I think this is stupid, I’m shutting it down,'” you should say something like, “‘I would really love to get away from politics at the Thanksgiving table this year,'” Post said.
“You want to redirect that conversation and you want to do it pretty overtly,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be amazingly smooth, just pick something that you know the person you’re talking to could speak about, and encourage them to talk on that topic.”
Etiquette expert Lizzie Post says the worst case scenario is, “When the sentiment of the occasion is eclipsed by the political conversation.” (Photo: Getty Images)
If telling someone you don’t want to talk politics doesn’t stop them, and they persist even after you’ve tried to change the subject, it’s time to ask them why they won’t let it go.
Post recommends saying something like, “Gee, you keep coming back to this, and I know Grandma asked us not to talk politics today. I’d be happy to talk this about another day with you.”
Or, you might ask, “Why are you so concerned about getting me to agree?”
Sometimes it can be hard to just let things go. If someone really gets you riled up or offended, Post suggests waiting to address the problem with the individual, rather than launching into a debate at the table.
Post suggests saying something like, “I know you and I have different beliefs, but the phrase that you just said really hurt me. I would love it if we could stay away from that topic and really focus on the things that you and I love about each other.”
If politics is your thing and you can’t imagine spending a whole meal, let alone entire days, without a good debate, then you should be very honest with yourself about why you’re going there before you toss politics into the holiday mix.
“If your goal is to — and we’ve learned some people’s goal is to do just this — make people frustrated and to rile them up, I say, leave it. Don’t be that person,” Post said. “Is your purpose to get Uncle Tim to change his ideas? I don’t think that’s going to work.”
On the other hand, if “you are genuinely interested in hearing the other side’s point of view, and you want to have a really good discussion or debate about it, that’s different and you might test the waters with that.”
If your intentions are pure and you’re dying to know how certain family members are interpreting the political landscape, Post suggests saying something like, “I know people don’t love talking politics at the holidays, but it’s been really fascinating. Would you be willing to get into it?”
“That might invite the other person into the conversation, rather than just thrust it upon them,” Post said.
You may not win Thanksgiving arguments, but you might be able to get others to see things your way.
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“Absolutely,” Post said. “I would just hate to see it get to the point where someone felt they had to leave in the middle of the meal in order to calm down or enjoy Thanksgiving.”
If you or the host have tried the techniques above and someone still insists on a political debate, it could lead to the person being asked to leave or to an early end to the gathering.
“That’s the route that no one wants to take,” Post said. “That is the worst case scenario: When the sentiment of the occasion is eclipsed by the political conversation.”
Some families may love political debate, and if that’s your clan, “go for it,” Post said. But most people “just want to eat some turkey and watch some football or a movie as a family.”
“People have been dealing with this level of political conversation for almost a year now,” she said. “The holidays are really a time to focus on what brings us together.”
More: Thanksgiving dinner etiquette: 20 tips to help guests mind their manners