"I can't talk to my neighbor," says "Bart," a reader.
At first, Bart and his neighbor, "Mel," were friendly. They talked sports. They shared opinions about new construction going on in their small town. Occasionally, they even borrowed tools from one another, each of them dutifully returning them in pristine condition.
But over the decade or so they've known each other, it became clear that Bart and Mel didn't have much common ground when it came to politics or how they chose to express their opinions on politics. Bart rarely broadcast his political opinions to anyone. But Mel regularly staked campaign signs on his front lawn and bumper sticks on his car's bumper.
The signs and bumper stickers didn't bother Bart (too much) and, early on, he and Mel never discussed them, the candidates they represented, or the views the candidates held. But things shifted a couple of years ago, Bart writes.
"He wouldn't stop talking about politics," Bart says. "And he'd get worked up and angry and was always talking about political stuff."
Bart now believes he can't be around Mel because he finds it too aggravating. "Some of the stuff he believes I think is just stupid," says Bart. "I don't think he has any idea that I don't agree with him on any of his politics."
Nevertheless, Bart still likes Mel and remembers how much he enjoyed having a neighbor with whom he could just shoot the breeze or borrow an occasional tool.
Bart wants to know if he is wrong to avoid Mel because he doesn't want to listen to him talk about politics any more.
Bart, and any of us, are free to choose to avoid anyone we want to avoid for any reason, as long as we don't cause harm to them in the process.
But from Bart's revelation that Mel has no idea what his political views are, it seems like Bart might not be giving Mel the opportunity to be a bit more sensitive with his vocal outpourings. If Mel doesn't know that his commentary causes Bart discomfort, then Bart has no idea if their friendship can return to focus on the stuff they each enjoy discussing.
Bart doesn't need to get into an argument with Mel. Nor does he need to reveal his own political leanings if he doesn't want to. But a first move before avoiding Mel altogether might be for Bart to simply tell him that talking about politics makes him uncomfortable and he'd rather not.
If nevertheless Mel persists, then Bart's decision to avoid Mel or limit the time around him seems a more reasonable decision. Bart may ultimately decide that he finds Mel's political views so offensive that he chooses not to associate with him at all. But right now, he simply doesn't want to have his neighbor talk politics with him. Sports, town activities, the proper way to winterize a lawn mower, yes. Politics, no.
If he'd like to maintain the friendship, the first thing Bart might do is to give Mel the benefit of the doubt that he will listen to Bart and honor his request. That's what friends do.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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