Tempted To Talk Politics On Thanksgiving? Just...Don't

Nov 22, 2017

If you don't want your holiday to turn in this classic scene from 'Cheers,' DON'T talk politics.

Thanksgiving - or any time families gather together - often includes some intense political debate at the dinner table. 

It's the first Thanksgiving with President Donald Trump in office, and in a purple state that was nearly split between candidates during the election, there are bound to be some uncomfortable conversations. 

That's why Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with NHPR's State of Democracy reporter Lauren Chooljian who gathered tips on how to survive this classic holiday conundrum.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

What steps should I take to ensure a nice, calm Thanksgiving?

Well that is the goal after all. And so I talked to two etiquette experts, one from New Hampshire and one from Massachusetts, and honestly they both told me that the first rule of politics at Thanksgiving is don't talk about politics at Thanksgiving—like just don't even go there. And a big reason for that is stomach acid.

Oh, what? Why?

There's a whole table full of food. Talk about the food. Know something about the other people at the table...If you ask Uncle Henry about his trip to Bermuda, Uncles Henry's probably going to be thrilled to talk about that rather than politics.

Yeah, stomach acid. Well, both experts actually brought this up independently, which I thought was hilarious. Here's Linda Simmons. She's a tea and etiquette consultant out of Bedford, New Hampshire, and she says political fights over dinner, they're not just bad manners. They're bad for your belly:

“That certainly wouldn't agree with trying to digest a lovely dinner that was prepared. So I just feel there's so many other things that you could discuss that would nourish the soul that would be more appropriate and uplifting.”

Digestion is important, but political topics are bound to come up, especially after such a polarizing year in politics. What should people say or do when someone brings up, you know, tax reform or sexual harassment?

Well, Linda says if your uncle or your cousin's girlfriend is notorious for starting feisty political debates, the dinner host should actually call him or her ahead of time and tell them politely, please no politics this year. And meanwhile Janet Parnes, who's an etiquette consultant for Massachusetts, she says people should arrive at Thanksgiving armed with conversation topics that aren't about President Trump, or Al Franken or whatever. Here's Janet:

“There's a whole table full of food. Talk about the food. Know something about the other people at the table. That helps because people love to talk about themselves. And if you ask Uncle Henry about his trip to Bermuda, Uncles Henry’s probably going to be thrilled to talk about that rather than politics.”

But what if things do get heated, Lauren? I mean, what if Uncle Henry runs out of his Bermuda stories and gets on Grandma's case about voter fraud? How would you guide the conversation to more civil turf?

Now THAT'S more like it

Well some of these tips might sound familiar as normal fight diffusion techniques—like don't use you statements: You’re obstinate. You never understand me. Or you know, be sure to acknowledge people's opinions before starting your own. Like if I'm Uncle Henry in that situation, I should say Grandma I see where you're coming from, but here's another point of view about the Russia investigation. And if that doesn't work, Linda says she would shut things down like this:

“We would all have our water glass, or wine glass or whatever. I would probably just tap on the edge of the glass, and that would be a time to just bring up another totally different subject.”

Naturally, she says this would get everyone's attention at the table and hopefully shut things down.

Okay, so one could argue that what our country does need is a more civil, political dialogue. That sounds nice. What tips did these etiquette experts share for people who really just want to hash things out?

I think the etiquette argument here is not stop talking about politics forever, rather in their perspective, it just doesn't belong at Thanksgiving dinner tables, where it can really make people feel left out or even offended. Linda from New Hampshire suggested, you know, maybe grab Uncle Henry when you get your pumpkin pie and see if he wants to talk health care reform in the living room one-on-one. You know Janet, the etiquette expert from Massachusetts, she says part of the problem is the tone of politics is so much harsher now. She says seeing leaders like President Trump speak aggressively maybe emboldens others to be more aggressive or rude, and that doesn't make anyone feel comfortable at Thanksgiving or anywhere. And she says the goal of a good conversation is likability, and even debates you can really still aim for generating that likability and respect.