Where are you most likely to come front-and-center with people of opposing political views?
Surprisingly, at your Thanksgiving table.
“Where political diversity tends to exist in this country is not in neighborhoods, but in extended families,” said William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
“You choose your friends, you choose your neighborhood, and, a lot of times, occupations are segregated politically now.
“You go out to your in-laws, and your cousins, you go out far enough, and you’re going to have political diversity,” Doherty said. “You didn’t choose any of those people.”
That means your holiday gatherings can create a perfect storm of differences, with more than enough drama and tension for all.
“You get family dynamics, extended-family dynamics and politics, and put them all in the same room at the same time. Good luck!” he said.
Doherty isn’t trying to be a downer. In fact, as the co-founder of Better Angels, a bipartisan nonprofit, he works to help liberals and conservatives move beyond stereotypes to find common ground.
But he’s seen the science behind our increasingly polarized society, and how it affects our holiday meals. He points to a study recently published in the journal Science, which found that dinners among politically divided families were as many as 50 minutes shorter than those among politically matched family celebrations.
That’s why he doesn’t suggest that divided families talk politics over turkey.
Instead, he advises that families avoid the topic altogether when gathered as group, especially around a dinner table. Large groups aren’t ideal for dealing with potentially contentious topics, in part because one strong-minded person can easily shut others down, or force the conversation to take a dogmatic turn. And even when there’s no yelling, it can get tense around the table.
“There’s nothing wrong with making a suggestion that during the meal, you just enjoy one another, focus on what you are thankful for, and don’t do political combat,” he said.
Making it meaningful
That doesn’t mean conversation has to be limited to the weather and other mindless small talk.
“There are big things to talk about,” said Marnita Schroedl, who works to create community connections through her Minneapolis nonprofit, Marnita’s Table.
“One of the best ways to handle something like Thanksgiving is to control the conversation from the front end,” she said. “On Thanksgiving, we don’t just let the conversation be a free-ranging conversation.”
Schroedl is fond of inviting people way outside of her immediate circle (she recommends that everyone try it), but she does a little prep work to get everyone involved in taking the conversation up a notch.
Of course, it can be as simple as going around the table and asking everyone to talk about what they’re thankful for. But Schroedl goes a bit further.
She prints open-ended questions on note cards and scatters them around the table to spark dialogue. Oh, and she offers a few guidelines: No cross talk, please. And don’t speak for others.
Some of her questions include:
• Have you had an experience that caused you to unexpectedly feel gratitude?
• Have you ever had a conversation that changed your life?
• Are there any things in life that you think you should be able to take for granted? What things?
• If you had to pick two things about yourself that you value the most, what would they be?
• Is there anyone from whom you take advice? Who is that person? Why?
• What or who has had the greatest impact on your life?
• If you could improve one thing about your life, what would it be?
If you are still itching to talk politics, or at least learn why your great-uncle voted the way he did, after dinner is the time to do it, Doherty said.
“If you’re interested in trying to have rational political discussions — because we’re in a democracy, we have to be able to talk — do those one-on-one.”
But instead of approaching the conversation as a red vs. blue smackdown, he suggests imagining that you’re talking about your religious affiliations.
“It’s like you’re dealing with your atheist cousin, and you’re a strong Christian. You’re not going to wade in and prove the existence of God to your atheist cousin,” he said.
“If you’re curious, not trying to change someone’s mind, and state your own views as your own views, there’s a decent chance that the other person will reciprocate in kind and you can have a decent conversation.”
Like Schroedl, Doherty offers a few ground rules, cautioning folks not to raise their voice, ask “gotcha” questions or use labels (like “socialist” or “racist”).
Instead, he suggests:
• Acknowledging what the other person has said before you share your point of view.
• Using “I” statements (“This is how I see it”) instead of “truth” statements (“This is how it is”).
• And, if at all possible, try to find common ground.