Americans recently lived through a rather long and contentious national election, and unless you come from a very unusual family, come Thursday you may find yourself sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with someone whose political opinions differ from your own. Whether you are a lone blue at a red table or a solitary red dining in a sea of blue, small talk will likely include President-elect Donald Trump.
Now, at some point in our lives, most of us have been admonished to steer clear of three dreaded small talk topics: sex, religion, and politics. Why? Because they tend to irritate, not ingratiate—and with Thanksgiving following so closely on the heels of the election, please do adhere to this advice. From a completely apolitical perspective, there is one overarching recommendation I have for your Thanksgiving table this year: Avoid engaging in a contentious debate.
So what does this mean? No matter what your political party, and no matter what your social leanings, please be polite. Be polite when conservative uncle Joe proves to be a sore winner, and be polite when crazy cousin Lois starts in on her liberal leanings. To actually enjoy family and friends, follow these recommendations for a peaceful holiday meal:
Follow house rules
Those who have ever hosted Thanksgiving already know that having guests over is a lot of work. There is shopping, chopping, stirring, basting, baking, cleaning, setting, and more to do. Self-involved, self-righteous dinner guests screaming over the succotash are seldom appreciated. Unless the host specifically requests a political discourse with dinner, gracious guests know to avoid the topic. You want to moderate a political debate? Great. You will need to host it at your house.
Friends and relatives may default into needling each other when small talk fails to gain traction. Knowing this, you should arrive with appropriate topics at the ready: books you have read, plays or movies you have seen, or a funny anecdote from work. Maybe your aunt just returned from a trip to the Galapagos; ask her about it. When all else fails, ask everyone to share something they are thankful for this Thanksgiving or a favorite holiday memory from years ago.
Keep your eye on the time
Too much together time leads to uncomfortable conversations. Ask your host for specifics. Thanksgiving might be called for 1:00 p.m., but turkey-time is 4:00—that is a whole three hours to occupy. If you do plan to arrive later, just be sure to inform the host in advance about your arrival closer to table time. “Aunt Sue, we want Bobbie to be on his best behavior so we will head over to your house after his nap. We should be there before 3:00.”
As you are preparing for your journey over the river and through the woods, consider what to bring. Pictures from a recent vacation, art projects by your elementary school progeny, or other conversation catalysts help to pass the time pleasantly. If nothing rings a bell, then grab a game. Cranium, Pictionary, or Taboo can be played by the whole family.
Read the room
In the same manner that comedians get a feel for their audience so that they know which jokes to tell and which to save, you too should understand your table situation. Are your invited guests people that love to debate? Will some play the contrarian just for fun? Observe the action and know which lines not to cross.
Discerning hosts are aware of their guests’ pros and cons. Those with opposing views should never be seated on opposite sides of the table. Better to break sightlines by assigning seats on the same side of the table, separated by two or three neutral parties.
Acknowledge and divert
You may be on your best behavior, but there is someone trying to push your buttons. Even if specifically asked about your political leanings, you are not obligated to answer. Instead use the savvy politician’s tactic of responding without actually replying to the question. “I am so glad you asked about voting. Yes, I did vote and you would not believe who I saw in line. Do you remember Suzy from high school? She was there and told me the funniest story …”
Avoid too much alcohol
Contrary to popular opinion, no one’s polite persona improves with the consumption of alcohol. This is not to say you must have a dry Thanksgiving, but please be conscious of the when, where, and what. Wine with dinner? But of course! Shots for every clown you see in the Macy’s parade? Maybe not the best idea.
Take it outside
For most families, arguments start when there is too much together time (see above). Encourage others to join you outside. Whether it is a friendly game of flag football, playing in the park, or a walk around the block, a little fresh air and a lot of big muscle activity is good for everyone’s mood. (And there is the added bonus for the host, as it is much easier to clear dinner and reset for dessert when most of the guests are out of the house.)
Have an exit strategy
When you have put your best foot forward, maintained your composure, and kept the conversation light and bright, but undesired political banter persists, it is time to say your goodbyes. Don’t wait until you say something you are going to regret. Instead, hug your family, profusely thank your host, and head for the door.
If you truly want to convince others of your political point of view, the Thanksgiving table is not the place. By all means, you are entitled to voice your opinion, but not as a guest in someone else’s house. Donate to causes, attend rallies, or arrange for one-on-one time to speak with uncle Joe or cousin Lois. But for the sake of peace in the home, spend Thanksgiving searching for ways to make happy memories together that you will be able to look back on fondly in the years to come.
Keep your elbows off the table, chew with your mouth closed, and make this Thanksgiving a holiday reds and blues can enjoy together.
Jodi RR Smith is the president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.