Some tips on how to navigate politically charged conversations.
It’s an issue that has plagued family holiday celebrations for decades, but lately it’s been particularly pronounced.
Politics, and talking about the current state of politics, have seemingly taken hold of everyday life for Americans—and the often controversial subject is more difficult than ever to avoid at holiday gatherings. But, according to etiquette experts, political conversations should stay far away from the dinner table.
Certainly there is room for productive dialogue between family members at Thanksgiving dinner—though that may be hard to achieve. Despite being blood relatives, there are a range of factors that can cause problems, including generational divides, varying levels of education, and personal political opinions. And these days, that can be dangerous waters to navigate at a peaceful family dinner or event.
So what can you do? Real Simple spoke to three etiquette experts who gave their best advice and tips to prepare for the upcoming holiday season.
“Tradition would dictate you don’t speak about politics at the table,” said Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert who is the CEO of her own lifestyle and coaching company. “But because of our modern society today and the current political climate that is super prevalent in our everyday lives—whether it’s a policy or a law that is affecting many of our lives—stifling guests or family members from having a conversation at all would be difficult.”
Here’s what you need to know about how to navigate these conversations if they happen at your upcoming holiday get-together.
There’s No Way to Simply Avoid the Conversation.
That’s right. Politics will come up, so you must be prepared.
As Swan said, politics are a difficult topic to avoid—they’ve entered so many facets of life, and simply trying to stifle them at the dinner table may not be the best option. Of course, some conversations can be helpful, and going into them with an open mind is highly recommended.
“If you have family members who can enjoy a respectful, thoughtful political discourse and still be smiling at the end of it, and feel they both learned something, then that kind of healthy engagement is not a bad thing,” says Thomas P. Farley, an etiquette expert, consultant, and speaker. But, he and other etiquette experts warn that that’s not usually the case.
If You’re a Host, Have a Plan of Action Ready Before Guests Arrive.
Hosts have the burden of ensuring an event runs smoothly—and they should not just plan ahead for the food and decor.
Both Farley and Swann suggest the host designates a room (with a door that can close) or a specified time for any kind of political conversations. That way, those who wish to participate, debate, or share their points of view will have the opportunity to do so in a controlled setting.
As for the keeping difficult conversations to a minimum, one etiquette expert recommends the host create a list of planned talking points, like discussions about food and travel.
“The holidays are a time to reflect on positive subjects, not doom and gloom,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert who founded the Protocol School of Palm Beach.
If You’re a Guest, Make It Known When You’re Uncomfortable.
Whether you’re familiar with the family dynamic and your relatives’ political standings or not, guests should alert the host if they are uncomfortable. Swann suggests guests immediately inform the host if they are feeling uncomfortable by a conversation or situation.
Before the event, guests who think this may be an issue should consider what kinds of suggestions they can give the host to alleviate the situation. A good host will recognize your feelings and help handle the situation quickly. Additionally, Whitmore said guests can try to absolve a situation on their own by changing the conversation topic or making it clear to other guests that they do not to wish to speak about the subject.
Don’t Be an Instigator.
If you’re hoping to avoid a heated debate at the dinner table, don’t provoke it yourself.
Though the topic of politics may be hard to avoid, an impassioned speech won’t change the political leanings or allegiances of your relatives, Farley said. While it may be particularly hard if you know one relative of yours had what you believe is an uniformed point of view, try to hold back.
“If you’re worried you can’t hold your peace, I’d enlist an accountability partner,” Farley said. In other words, find someone who can help you steer the conversation in another direction if it goes awry.
‘Let Crazy Be Crazy.’
As Swann and Whitmore points out, occasionally the only thing you can do is to remove yourself from a situation.
“Sometimes you can’t change crazy,” Swann said. “If there’s nothing they’re going to do to change their perspective, you change how you’re dealing with it.”
Swann suggests guests uncomfortable with a situation can shorten their visit or move to a different room or conversation. They can also remove themselves entirely and find a fun game to play with the kids.