When he was eight years old, my oldest grandson, Evan, asked if each of us gathered around the table for Thanksgiving could say something we were thankful for or to sing a song. We were in the middle of eating at the time, so the request came kind of randomly, yet we obliged. One by one, we expressed thanks or sang a short tune.
In the U.S., Thanksgiving tends to kick off a season of family gatherings. While it is always an issue, given the particularly contentious presidential election that just ended, I have received more than the usual number of questions about the right way to talk with family about politics when thrust around the same dinner table. The questions come with even more vigor from those who know they are about to break bread with some loved ones whose views run quite counter to their own.
A reader from Massachusetts wrote that he and his partner were specifically asked ahead of time not to talk about politics at a dinner to which they were invited. The host mentioned she knew that family at the dinner had strong, yet opposing, political viewpoints. She preferred such potentially difficult conversations not be brought up over dinner. "What should we do if politics do arise?" the reader asks.
I ascribe to the notion that the host gets to set the rules. If it's tradition or a request that no politics (or some other topic that might prove heated or, in some cases inappropriate) be discussed at the dinner table, the right thing to do is to honor the host or the tradition.
But a tougher question facing many is what to do if there are no established rules. What if someone around the table states a political position with which you disagree? Should you sit quietly? Verbally support that person's view to avoid unpleasantries? Nod in agreement? Flee the premises?
There's no ethical upside to pretending to hold a position that you don't simply to appease another guest. If the discussion is indeed a discussion, then it's perfectly appropriate to offer a different viewpoint if you have one. Fleeing is generally a poor option, particularly if you're enjoying your meal.
But offering a different viewpoint is different from trying to convert your dinner guest to thinking like you do. If you go into a discussion believing that your goal is to convert those to think like you do, it's unlikely you'll succeed. A good discussion involves as much listening as it does talking. And it's important to gauge others at the table to make sure any discussion doesn't make them uncomfortable or simply bore them.
At family gatherings, we know the people and we know the traditions. The right thing is to honor the same traditions we've always honored, not to pretend to hold views we don't simply to keep the peace, and respect those with whom we're talking.
It's also good to remember that politics isn't the only thing families and friends talk about. We talk about our kids, our work, our hobbies -- any number of things that don't require taking a particular side.
When all else fails, suggesting that each person at the table take turns expressing their thanks for something or breaking into song might not be a bad option.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to email@example.com.
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Jeffrey, with all due respect, I heartily do not ascribe to talking politics at family gatherings. From my experience, these discussions sadly lead to hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
When people engage in conversation that is not appropriate I never contradict thoughts opposing mine. Like Charlie mentioned it is easy to hurt the feelings of others in these kinds of conversations. And more importantly it is easy to hurt the feelings of those guys who are not interested in talking about that subject. In a very nice way I tried to shift the topic of conversation towards something less likely to offend someone. I might say something like 'Iknow I won't change your mind on this topic and you can't change mine. So why don't we talk about something more pleasant, like this turkey sure is good? So how is your new job coming?"
By doing it this way you acknowledge there is controversy without it becoming some long drawn-out keep it at the dinner table.
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