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How to Have a Politically Neutral Family Dinner This Holiday Season

Surprisingly, those closest to you are the ones you shouldn’t share your political views with…at least over the holidays.

 

In case you hadn’t noticed, the holidays are here.  And with TV-specials, annoying Christmas music, and hellish shopping experiences comes probably the most daunting of all seasonal obstacles: dealing with your family. It may sound cynical, but spending time amongst the people with whom you share DNA and avoid 11 months out of the year can be the worst part of the holiday season. From explaining to your great aunt that sitting in front of a computer all day for work doesn’t mean you’re a programmer to fake laughing at your uncle’s jokes that sound slightly racist, it’s enough to make you almost wish were an orphan.

But no topic of family conversation is more painful than politics. The current political climate doesn’t help things either.  What with such a divisive election barely behind us and the buildup to a showdown over “the fiscal cliff” between the White House and Congress, conversations around the holiday dinner table can get kind of intense. And if your Thanksgiving went anything like a lot other people’s then you’re probably still picking remnants of cranberry sauce out of your hair from the family fracas that ensued after Cousin Lauren (who’s in the middle of her second Sophomore year of college) and Uncle Jo (who refers to all the Fox News anchors by their first names) got into a debate on the definition of “socialist.”

So here are some tips and tricks to help you prevent your holiday family get-together from looking like footage from a cable news talks show.

Why You Shouldn’t Talk Politics 

Of course, it’s an age-old manners mantra that polite and proper dinner conversation must be absent of the infamous trinity of politics, religion, and money. But some contrarians may argue that it’s the twenty-first century and rigidly sticking to etiquette rules died with Emily Post. Besides this is your family, can’t you be honest with them about your thoughts on how to reduce the federal deficit?

“You should be able to be the most honest person you can be with your family,” admits etiquette expert Anthonette Klinkerman.  “Isn’t it ironic that those are the last people you feel you can be honest with?”

Klinkerman, better known as “Colonel Klinkerman,” is the “commanding officer” behind Courtesy Bootcamp, a mobile etiquette school that “drills” manners into customers based on “the golden rule.”  It’s that philosophical reasoning behind politeness that Klinkerman explains why, even if you want to be open about your political leanings to your family this holiday season and don’t care for proper social decorum, it’s still wrong.

“No matter what your blood relations happen to believe, they should be allowed to believe in what they want to believe and not have anybody influence them one way or another,” she explains.

That covers the why, but if you’re a well-rounded man of the world who keeps up with all the latest political news and current events, how do you keep yourself from getting into a heated conversation on healthcare reform with your grandmother?

Plan Ahead

This is probably the most widely given piece of advice on avoiding a touchy subject at family gatherings and what Klinkerman calls “a preemptive strike.” Basically, you causally reach out to your relatives with a text or e-mail before the event and reaffirm that it’s going to be a fun family dinner for catching up, relaxing, celebrating the holidays, and “not talking politics.”

“This is kind of a no-brainer,” says Klinkerman. “You shouldn’t have to do that – everybody’s a guest no matter where they are going.  So you’re supposed to be on your best behavior.”

Go Easy on the Booze

What’s a holiday and/or family get-together without alcohol? There’s eggnog, beer that’s cold from just being left on the porch, wine, and nothing goes better with Christmas turkey than whiskey. Unfortunately, if you want to avoid an argument on foreign policy, it looks like boozing it up is out.

“Don’t drown yourself in alcohol,” Klinkerman warns, “because all you’re doing is asking for trouble.”  She points out that most people use drinking to numb themselves to deal with family over the holidays, but you should limit yourself to only one or two drinks. Otherwise you run the risk of belligerently telling your cousin Dan that the only reason he likes Sarah Palin is because he thinks she’s hot.

So go sober, because as Klinkerman goes on to explain: “Staying in control is way more important than making sure you are right to make that person believe that your way of thinking is the correct one.”

Don’t Engage

So you’ve set the ground rules for a politics-free holiday event with the fam and are keeping your cool by laying off the booze.  But Grandpa really wants to tell you about this chain email warning how FEMA is setting up secret concentration camps while Aunt Alice keeps explaining her theory that Julian Assange was set up by the CIA. What do you do?

You don’t engage them. A conversation without a sparring partner has nowhere to go.  Besides if a family member expresses truly outrageous beliefs that push even the most passive political junkie’s buttons, you’ll be wasting your time trying debate them.

“You’ve got many older generations that got there by being the way they are and they are not going to change,” Klinkerman points out. “So why waste your energy trying to change their minds? Conserve your energy for eating pie.”

The non-engagement tactic gets harder when you’re the odd man out in a family that’s of the same political opinion — a lone conservative in a clan of hippies or the single liberal in a red state dynasty.

For such a situation, Klinkerman advises you to vocalize your intent not to participate. “Put the message out there that you’re not going to engage in conversation.”  She recommends using a firm tone to tell your pushy political relatives that they’re entitled to their political beliefs and you’re entitled to yours — that’s what’s great about America.

Make a Joke

Of course, no matter what steps you take to keep yourself from starting or participating in it, you run the risk of watching a family holiday celebration turn into an all out political shouting match. That’s when an ability to make people laugh can come in handy.

“Humor beats everything,” says Klinkerman, who suggests butting into an intense political conversation with a joke about the situation, like telling two relatives that are on the verge of yelling at each other over just how lazy that famous 47% really are to “save it for when you guys are on CNN.”

“It lightens up the mood a little bit and lets everyone know you’re not going to engage in this conversation,” says Klinkerman.

Express Your Political Fatigue

Another way to diffuse a pending family brawl over party affiliation is to express exhaustion at having to listen to anything more to do with politics. We’ve been through a looooong election season and claiming to simply be drained by all the rhetoric is a subtle way to tell your dad to shut it about Obama and Romney.

“Saying ‘Aren’t you’re kind of tired of it? Did all the commercials and coverage wear you out? I know they did me!’ is a good way to express that fatigue,” says Klinkerman. “And when you say that, it sends the message that you don’t want to talk about it.”

Have a Preplanned Diplomatic Statement for Your Most Important Issue

If you absolutely have to say something about a specific touchy political issue (gay marriage, marijuana legalization, gun rights etc.) that’s close to your heart and you know is going to probably be brought up by one of your relatives (probably Aunt Kathy, cause you know what she’s like), then a good idea would be to come up with something to say beforehand. An inoffensive tactful comment that expresses your viewpoint, but won’t inflame others. Something that begins with “I respect your opinion, but believe that…”

“I would very carefully rehearse in your mind what you’re going to say first,” says Klinkerman, who explains that the heat of the moment and the flowing of alcohol might turn your punditry into belligerent ranting.  Though she still recommends you don’t say anything, because even if you use the gentlest of phrasing there’s no way to tell how others will respond to your opinion. “Biting your tongue and thinking about how others are going to receive what you’re going to say is something we have to do and we’re so bad at it. And we’re so bad at predicting how people are going to react.”

Speak With Your Body

The penultimate tactic to shutting down an out-of-control political argument at the holiday dinner table is to show your disapproval with your body. By simply turning away from your mom and Uncle Ryan’s back and forth on climate change and loudly asking Cousin Scott if he’d seen Skyfall yet, you’re sending a pretty clear message.

“You kind of take the wind out of the sail of the person who is being offensive talking about politics and they will eventually stop,” says Klinkerman. Though it may seem improper to pointedly turn away from a conversation, she claims it’s worth it. “Whatever is perceived as being rude is momentary,” explains Klinkerman. “It will only last for seconds. I’d rather have that, a few seconds of discomfort than REALLY getting my blood pressure up over a conversation I don’t wish to have.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Leave the Table

Your last move to avoiding the dreaded family melee over politics is to leave the table.  It may seem petty and childish, but telling your relatives that you don’t find politics to be appropriate dinner conversation and would rather share your meal with those who have only constructive things to say before shuffling off to the kids’ table will probably shut everyone up (and is guaranteed to make you a family legend).

“You have to nip it in the bud and say ‘I don’t want to take this conversation any further and if you continue I am going to get up and leave,’” says Klinkerman. Of course, some might say the tactic is a little too dramatic, which she admits, but points out that it shouldn’t matter to you.  “Will it create more drama? Not if you’re in the other room!”

This is also a great move to pull if you find yourself as that political family black sheep that everyone else is piling on. “If they don’t have a target in the room,” says Klinkerman, ”they’re not going to keep going.”

So there you have it: Some serious (and hopefully helpful) tips on having a nice politically neutral family event this holiday season. As for the inevitable interrogation on your love life, whether you’re seeing anyone, if it’s serious, if you’re planning on getting married, and why you never called grandma’s friend’s granddaughter? You’re on your own.

About

Dave Odegard is a freelance writer and editor. He lives with his dog in Brooklyn, where he trains for marathons when not spending way too much time on the Internet. You can stalk him at DaveOdegard.com.

 
  • Aaron G. Peabody

    I suspect I take a minority view on the whole topic of family, helped along considerably by the fact that I live so far away from most of mine, but I have long believed that if you have to be this circumspect around this group that you are supposed to love then I have to ask whether you need them around at all. 

    Yes, through an accident of genetics or fate there is a body of people to whom you are related. Why does this have to mean that you treat them any differently from everyone else around you? I love and respect my parents. I love my sibling, though their choice of mate confounds and offends me. Half my aunts and uncles are people who I hardly ever think about. The other half are people who I would gladly put even greater distances between if I could. 

    My friends are the people I keep in my life because they make me happy. If family cannot meet the same criteria as friends, including being able to find harmony with them or, at the very least, being able to communicate honestly and openly without anyone’s feelings being hurt, then why bother with family?

    • odinbearded

       I’m not sure if you noticed the header to this blog, but it’s a “Guide to Growing Up.” Being able to spend a day or two with family is part of the human social experience.

      The family structure is tremendously important. Because one day you might find that the isolated bubble of people you like might not be there for you.

      But more than that, family is important to them. While you might not care about your extended family now, I’ve never really met an old person who wished they spent less time with their relatives. If you are unwilling to make a small sacrifice to your personal comfort to bring happiness to others, that’s a sign of a small person. And if you really must find a selfish motive, think of it as practice for the world. The ability to make small talk with people you don’t particularly like can make life a lot easier overall.

  • CS

    My family has an unspoken understanding that political debate are to be confined to Facebook only.  It could be an all-out brawl online, but the next time we see each other or speak on the phone, it’s like the argument never happened.  So far it’s worked out quite well and there’s been almost no spill-over.

  • http://guymanningham.com/ Guy Manningham

    But where’s the fun in that? Nothing says “I love you” like some good old fashioned family fisticuffs. http://guymanningham.com

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