How should you manage political conversation at the holiday dinner table? This year in particular that etiquette question has taken on new meaning and seems to be weighing heavier on everyone’s minds. As an etiquette expert, I know this because I see the volume of questions about this topic sitting in my inbox and it is greater than ever before. There is genuine concern about how a difficult campaign and election is going to affect the desired harmony of friends and families as we gather to celebrate.
The good news is that traditional etiquette does address this potential difficulty and has something to offer, even in what may feel like extreme times. In fact it is when faced with difficulty or adversity that true grace and poise are tested and revealed. It is easy to be calm, composed, genial, and considerate when others are behaving the same way. The challenge is in maintaining those admirable qualities in the face of difficulty. As is true of every challenge, including managing contentious family members at the holiday dinner table, this one presents an opportunity to polish up our best selves to offer to each other.
Here are a few ideas to keep in mind for navigating this sometime difficult situation:
Prepare yourself mentally. Sometimes, this step alone can be enough to save you emotional angst. Think about how you are feeling and how you are likely to react to certain circumstances or provocative opinions that might arise. Remind yourself what type of reaction you would want to have instead. Think about the people who are going to be present and how you would want to interact with them, given ideal conditions. Give yourself a range of behaviors that you are going to stick within no matter what is said: I will not raise my voice; I will not insult anyone; I will not lash out physically. Hold yourself accountable beforehand and you are less likely to respond emotionally in a way you might regret.
Stick to “safe” topics of conversation
Sports, the weather, pop-culture and entertainment, we all know the topics that are the most safe and appropriate for a general audience. Treat family with the same respect around the holiday dinner table. Don’t forget that you can bond over immediate shared experiences such as the smell of the food or the difficulty driving to your destination. Small talk is an art and it is worth investing in. The world is simply full of interesting things if you allow yourself to consider them. Be curious. Ask questions. Share your passion for arts, hobbies, sports, or science. Talk about other things besides the often fraught and potentially controversial topics of politics, religion, or your love life. The host is often the best candidate to guide conversation back into safer territory.
Sometimes the best tactic to keep from responding in a negative way or letting others get you down is to recommit to listening. This holiday you can’t be sure that others will accommodate your preference to stay away from tough conversations. In fact, they might even initiate one just to test you. Don’t be tempted to take the bait. The act of listening can be your substitute response, and you might find that while you don’t agree with what is being said, you can learn about someone else or the perspective they bring. Try active listening: look the person in the eye, sit up, repeat back what you have heard, and ask a follow-up question.
Ask for help
Set some ground rules ahead of time and try to get everyone to agree to them. If you are concerned that political talk will be too acrimonious, ask if others are willing not to go there this year. Your host can help you reach everyone with a soft touch. Whoever is responsible for inviting and coordinating the holiday is often the right person to spread this kind of word. If there is a special someone whom you usually love to debate with and simply don’t think you can do it this year, let him or her know before they launch into what they are probably thinking will be an appreciated back and forth. The idea is to be clear about your level of comfort with political talk before it becomes a problem. Don’t wait until trouble begins to ask not to talk about it-that can come across as demanding or rude. There is a good chance that if you set some boundaries firmly and politely ahead of time, most people will respect those limits.
Don’t argue back
Whatever happens, don’t get drawn in. Remind yourself that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Even if you can’t respect a certain perspective, maybe you can respect the right of someone to have it anyway. This can be very difficult to do. The temptation to rise to the challenge of a perceived offense is great. But it is nearly impossible to argue when someone won’t argue back. Your willingness to cede the last word and acknowledge someone else’s right to have an opinion different from your own is often your best exit strategy. You don’t have to agree on a particular issue, but perhaps you can agree that two people who see things differently can still share their favorite side dish.
Remember to enjoy yourself
Keep the focus on the positive. Family, friends, and co-workers gather to share company and celebrate. Remind yourself of the basic human connection that is established through holiday gatherings. There is plenty of time in your life for serious political debate, but the focus around the holiday dinner table is best kept on the people who are present. The bonds of love and affection that we count on to see us through all political climates are important and worth investing in. This is as true now as it has ever been. Happy holidays!
Daniel Post Senning is the great-great-grandson of Emily Post and co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette 18th edition. Senning, who is based in Burlington Vermont, is also co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast.