How To Handle Difficult Political Conversations At Thanksgiving
For some, the holidays are all about being grateful and getting some quality time with their family. But for others, the holidays mean awkward dinner conversations and remembering that you have literally nothing in common with your second cousins. For some reason, Thanksgiving seems to be particularly fraught — and talking about politics at the dinner table can be a minefield. You might want to avoid the conversation altogether, and that's OK.
"I believe that there was a time when families were able to have healthy, productive debates about politics but I haven’t seen that since 2016," relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, tells Bustle. "It does seem like we are so divided that there’s truly very little point in having a holiday political discussion. All that can come of it right now is anger, hurt, and bad feelings."
But you might feel that you want to have the difficult conversations and really engage — if that's the case, it's important to go in knowing the limits of the conversation. "As a general rule always remind yourself that you cannot control others, you can only control yourself," mental health expert Dr. Danielle Forshee tells Bustle. "Therefore, when others begin to talk about things that are offensive or uncomfortable your reactions are what you can control but you cannot control them from talking about something or having a specific opinion."
But if you still want to wade in, here are some tips on what to say if the dinner table conversation takes a tricky turn.
1. If Someone Says Something Offensive
While many difficult political conversations are difficult, some of them get downright dirty. What should you do if someone says something offensive? "Nothing," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show tells Bustle. "Ask yourself, 'Is it worth it to get into it?' 'How long will I be here with this person?' 'Will saying something make me feel better in the moment and then start a fight?'"
If you really feel like you do want to say something, keep it short and simple. "'I don’t appreciate that comment,' and then be ready to follow up with silence — there is no reason to fight during the holidays — taking the 'highroad' often means a much easier time for you," Klapow says. However, if someone says something prejudiced, then that's another story...
2. If Someone Is Racist, Sexist Or Xenophobic
If someone is racist, sexist, xenophobic or downright prejudiced, you should address that in no uncertain terms. "[It's] not to be tolerated," Klapow says. "Simply stated, 'I don’t appreciate those remarks. I’m not sure why you felt you needed to make them, but please stop — they are hurtful'. Sometimes the remarks are made out of ignorance, so gauge their intentions. There is a need to educate versus attack someone who made a statement that they didn’t realize was offensive. If it is a blatant racist statement and inappropriate, you can call them out and ask that they stop." There are some things that just need to be addressed, no matter how uncomfortable it might make everyone.
3. If Someone Gets Angry
If tempers flare at the dinner table, it's important to keep your own in tow. "Stay calm," Klapow says. "You don’t have to say anything — you simply can model for them that you are not going to engage, you will not fuel angry behavior at holiday time. Staying calm sends the message that their anger is theirs only. There is nothing to say to them. If they are angry with you specifically you can let them know that you are sorry they are angry and ask if it was something you said or did? But more than anything else, staying calm will have the biggest impact."
If you can keep your cool, it will just help show how irrational their angry response is.
4. If Someone Says Something You Know Is True
Sometimes, we get comments that are difficult swallow — not because they're wrong but because we know the other person is right and we don't want them to be. If this is the case, admit it. "“You know, you are right," Klapow says. "And nothing more. Acknowledge what they have said even if it makes you uncomfortable and then simply move on." If you want to have a constructive conversation, you need to be willing to admit when you're in the wrong — or at least when they're in the right.
5. If Someone Won't Change The Subject
If the conversation gets caught in a loop — and that often happens — you can be blunt about trying to be move past it. "Ask directly to move on to something else," Klapow says. “'Hey — let’s move on to a different topic.' Or you can pivot the conversation: 'Hey, I wanted to share something with you all'. Work to change the subject and if they don’t even after your cues, simply disengage." Sometimes, a non sequitur, no matter how awkward, can save the conversation. Hopefully, other people will want to change the subject and help move it along.
6. If Someone Gets Their Feelings Hurt
You probably aren't the only one who finds these conversations difficult, so keep an eye out for other people who might have their feelings hurt. "Console them, let them know you noticed," Klapow says. "Tell them you care about them, and help them rebound." He suggests saying, "'I saw you got your feelings hurt — I hate that for you, come on — let’s try to move on.'"
7. If Someone Is Disrespectful
If someone is disrespectful to you or your opinions, try to stay grounded. "Context is everything here," Klapow says. "If they are disrespectful to you, let them know that you don’t appreciate the comment. Then again, stay calm. This is not about getting into a fight. It’s about stating a response and moving on. If they are disrespectful to someone else, you can take them aside and let them know that they may have hurt that person’s feelings. You can stand up for what’s right — without fighting."
Another option is to take the high ground by remembering what the holiday is all about. "If someone is disrespectful, you can say something like, 'That reminds me: Let's all go around the table and say something that we are grateful for,'" Dr. LeslieBeth (LB) Wish, LCSW, tells Bustle. A little reminder about why you're all here can go a long way.
8. If Someone Leaves The Table
If things take a dramatic turn and someone leaves the table — which can definitely happen — try to give them a moment to calm down. "Give them time, the holidays can be stressful," Klapow says. "Sometimes conflict comes up and the person needs to re-group. Give them a few minutes to rebound on their own. If they don’t, you can check on them and simply ask, 'I see you are upset — is there anything I can do? Or is there anything I can listen to that you’d like to share?' Sometimes they just need to vent."
9. If Everyone Disagrees With You
If you find that your political opinions are completely different from everyone else's at the table, it's totally OK to pick your battles. "Battle versus war is relevant here," Klapow says. "If everyone disagrees with you, it’s your choice. You can fight till the end. Or be curious about why they disagree with you. You can even ask, 'Why is it that all of you disagree with me? Help me understand why I’m alone with this perspective.' You need to remind yourself that you can create a huge blow up by simply verbally holding your ground. It’s fine to say, 'OK, I see I am thinking differently — got it.' And leave it at that." You don't need to spend the whole meal waving the flag and fighting the good fight at the expense of your mental health.
Thanksgiving conversations can be tricky — and they can go in a lot of different directions. But as a basic rule, if you can keep calm, be open-minded, and defend your values without starting a fight, the conversation should stay as healthy as possible. And, when in doubt, just focus on the pumpkin pie.