My grandmother had a rule: No talking about politics, religion or money while at the table. In the wake of the 2016 election, this may be particularly difficult, especially if yours is a family that is divided along political lines. Some may still be mourning the results of the presidential election while others are celebrating. Some may be scared to death about what comes next, while others are bathing in new hope for their future.
Will the get-together of the clan this year be a joyous reunion, a debacle of political fighting or an exercise of exquisite tact while every person bites a groove in his or her tongue? If one uncle starts to weigh in on the horrors of same-sex marriage or national health care, will aunt so-and-so feel obliged to take him on with devastating data about human rights violations going on nation-wide? If your sister-in-law the feminist starts in about the sexism of the campaigns, will your brother-in-law accuse her of being too sensitive? Fighting words, all. Why, oh why, can’t these people resist the impulse to try to change people who aren’t going to revise their opinions regardless of how much evidence is thrown their way? It’s not new information who is on the right and who is on the left of the political spectrum. It’s not new information about who was championing who at election time. So why go into it now?
Why? Because it’s part of your family’s dance. They’ve been doing it forever. Everyone knows their roles. Everyone expects the worst and is already on the defensive about anticipated attacks. It won’t change unless someone does something to interrupt it.
You can make a difference.
If yours is a family where holiday meal time arguments leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouth, you can make a difference. It takes some planning. It takes commitment to the project. It takes being willing to try even if you think you might fail. But changing family dynamics usually starts with someone being willing to take it on.
Think about trying this: Get everyone’s attention before dinner and remind them that there are things more important than politics, even if there are people who don’t think so at the moment. In the friendliest way possible, ask for a truce. Use humor. Post a sign of one of those circles with a line through it that designates the dinner table as a “no politics” zone. Wave a white flag and suggest that, at least during dinner, people should talk about something, anything, else than the state of the Union and the people who want to run it.
Some people will be annoyed. Some will be relieved. But most will probably at least try to go along, especially if you give them something else to talk about. Suggest a few other topics or obtain some of those cards that provide neutral conversation starters.
In our family, if someone utters a sentence that breaks the no-politics rule, they have to put a quarter in the bowl in the center of the table. Anyone can call them on it. Twenty-five cents a sentence can add up pretty quick. When everyone keeps it light and goes for some laughs, it’s fun, not hostile. After dinner, you can debate which charity ought to get the benefit of the collection.
If going for a change fails, well, you can take some comfort in the fact that you tried. Then it’s time for a personal Plan B. If there are family members who just can’t resist picking a political fight anyway, and you’d just as soon forego participation in the debate, er, argument, try these tips to stay out of it.
- Change the subject. Make sure you have a few topics at the ready. The fate of the football team? The latest celebrity split? How about asking for movie recommendations? Bring up a happy family memory.
- Spill something. That always distracts everyone for a bit. A little water on the tablecloth is far better than a flood of disagreeable conversation.
- Compliment the food. Ask for the recipe.
- Ask someone to pass whatever dish is furthest away from you. The logistics involved in getting it to you will provide an opening for introducing another topic.
- Practice innocuous responses: “That’s interesting.” “I see what you’re saying.” “I’ll have to think about that.” They’re all true. They don’t commit you to anything. If pressed, spill something.
- Nod a lot. Say little.
- Offer to take the dog for a walk.
- Go play with the kids so the other adults can talk, um, argue.
- Sit back and marvel at the family dynamics. But keep your observations to yourself. It won’t help matters for you to point out who is controlling and who has a personality disorder.
- And then there’s always the direct approach: State clearly and pleasantly that as interesting as their argument is, you’d rather enjoy the meal. If pressed, spill something.