Happy Thanksgiving! With today comes turkey, Christmas shopping and the first in a slew of family gatherings for the holidays. And in an election season like this, you’re probably already gritting your teeth in anticipation of spending time with the family.
It’s not like getting together with family over the holidays is normally exactly stress free, but just thinking of listening to Aunt Donna railing about ISIS sleeper agents posing as Syrian refugees or Cousin Matt using the phrase “feel the Bern,” probably fills you with as much dread as the first Native American to see a Pilgrim. And then you’re going to have to go through this all again for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and/or New Years.
All you want is to digest some heavy food and get through the meal without an episode of the old CNN show Crossfire erupting at that table, is that too much to ask?
Not at all.
That’s why we recently spoke with etiquette writer and expert Lizzie Post, who’s also the great-great-granddaughter of THE Emily Post (the godmother of American etiquette). According to Post (Lizzie, not Emily), defining the ins and outs of politeness (or as she calls it “the family business”) is something that’s always in need and constantly being updated.
“Because etiquette is really about how our lives affect one another, anytime you have people coming together there's always a moment of etiquette we can talk about,” Post said. “As the way Americans conduct themselves around each other changes over time, there's a whole conversation to be had there and things to be thought about.”
But in case you were wondering, one thing that hasn’t changed is the impoliteness to talk about politics at the dinner table, along with religion, sex and money.
“People can really take it personally and feel like their entire belief system is being attacked and if they don't get a chance to represent it well, they're fighting a losing battle,” Post explained.
And if you’re someone who believes in the free exchange of ideas and that a rousing political discussion can lead to insight and personal development, then you may be surprised that Post doesn’t disagree with you.
“I'll never say that having these conversations and going there is a bad thing. It's not a bad thing,” she said. “But it has the potential to be a really difficult situation.”
And who wants to make an already tense set of circumstances more difficult?
With that in mind, we put together (with Post’s help) some straightforward and practical ways to sidestep political debates with your family this holiday season.
Change the Subject
Here’s a classic scenario: You’re at the table, noshing on some turkey, and a certain relative (looking your way, Uncle Steve) brings up the most recent debate and an outrageous claim by a certain candidate with crazy hair. It’s like watching a car careen through a red light into a busy intersection in slow motion, undoubtedly about to start off a chain reaction of crashes, with other family members about to throw in with their own opinions. But even if you’re not the host, you can put a stop to the political pileup before it begins by jumping in and steering the discussion to something else.
“Any guest at the table can try and steer a conversation in another direction,” Post explained. “Simply bring up a different topic of conversation to talk about.”
Stick to the Right Conversation Topics
If you’re trying to keep the talk amongst your relatives from turning political, whether it’s at the table or hanging out before the holiday feast begins, your best bet, according to Post, is to stick to a few specific topics. These include sports, entertainment and life events
“We call these ‘tier one topics’ and they are topics you can generally talk about with anybody and 90 percent of the time I'm going to say you're in safe territory,” she explained.
And if you ever get really stuck, just whip out the conversation big gun and ask the other person about themselves. “The biggest and the best you can do is ask about other's lives,’ said Post.
Directly Confront But Don’t Engage
Okay, so what do you do if Aunt Marge just won’t take a hint and doesn’t ease up in her diatribe about how the Tea Party Republicans are destroying congress?
Well, if it’s at the table and you’re the host, Post says it’s completely permissible for you to tell the relative to knock it off, but do it politely and openly. So don’t drag Marge into the kitchen and berate her.
“The host can say something like ‘I really appreciate your views on that, but I just don't want to get into politics at the table tonight’ and then change the subject, said Post. “Inviting them to talk about something else, doesn't tell them that you just think they should be quiet all together. But it does kind of put them on the spot in front of everyone else.
And if you’re the victim of a one-on-one conversation with a family member who can turn any discussion into a political rant, then you have the option of saying something even if you’re not the host, but still keep it polite. Something like” I understand how you feel, but I'm not interested in going there.”
“I personally think it's okay to be direct with that person,” said Post.
The key is not to engage with a relative looking to talk politics--no matter how you feel or what they say.
“When you choose not argue with a person, it's much harder for them to continue to have a debate or a rant,” explained Post.
Sometimes a “political discussion” can get offensive, especially in regards to topics of race, gender and sexuality identity. And even though you know you shouldn’t give in and say something (see above), sometimes Cousin Ryan’s thoughts on “Black Lives Matter” just cross the line.
So what do you do? Politely leave the room.
“You can give a response with your showing no tolerance for it,” explained Post. “A lot of people think that walking away is not effective. that it somehow leaves things unsaid, but it's also a powerful example to give someone. And I think it's one that people need to put more emphasis on.”
But if you feel like you absolutely MUST say something to remarks that are beyond the pale, Post says you can, but just before you leave.
“You can say ‘I really don't appreciate those remarks’ and then you can say ‘for these reasons’ and then excuse yourself,” she said.
Like most everything in life, preparation for dealing with your family can go a long way. You probably already know which relatives are going to want to chat about the election and current events, as well as where they lean politically. So preparing to deal with with them shouldn’t be that tough.
“If you take a little bit of your time in your drive or flight or your day before to think about your relationships with the people in your family and if they aren't all positive ones just mentally prepare yourself for how you're going to keep things pleasant,” explained Post, who also noted that if you’re bringing a guest for the holidays, like a new boyfriend or girlfriend, you might want to clue them in too.
Just don’t over do it, warns Post. “I think prepping is always okay,” she said, “but don't over-prep to the point where you're not allowing this person to make a connection with the person you're talking about.”
Have a Good Time
Probably most important of all is to remember that the holidays are about celebration and bonding with family. They’re supposed to be a good time and, according to Post, you should remember that, no matter what happens.
“When things don't go quite right, don't let it ruin the entire experience for you,” she explained. “Find the moments that are going to be good. Find the people you can talk with and feel comfortable with and try to seek that out in your holiday, rather than focusing on the difficulties that might arise.”