How not to ruin Thanksgiving talking politics

How not to ruin Thanksgiving talking politics
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It’s that time of year again: we come together with relatives and acquaintances across the Thanksgiving table to share a meal and, we hope, find thankfulness for each other.

The Washington Post recently highlighted the results of a UCLA and Washington State University study that found, relative to the year before, politically divided families shortened Thanksgiving dinner by 20-30 minutes last year, following the divisive presidential election. This is a shame. Thanksgiving dinner, awkward though it may sometimes be, is a rare opportunity for each of us to focus on the simple and constructive act of putting aside our phones, saying no to Netflix, and seeing what we can discover to enjoy about each other.


So even if you don’t feel like focusing on politics this Thanksgiving, what can you do to connect with family, acquaintances or friends who may not define themselves in the way you do, whether because of age, gender, experience, role in the family or community, profession, economic circumstances, race or religion? Practicing the three “Ds” is a great start — détente, discomfort and dialogue.


1. Détente: Remember that conversation is not necessarily compromise; speaking with someone you don’t relate to or listening to someone you don’t agree with isn’t necessarily selling out.

In fact, only by starting from an initial détente and proceeding with the conversation can you learn whether there might be areas of unanticipated connection on which you can build together. And non-confrontational questions don’t inevitably produce boring responses. For example, asking “What’s your least favorite time of day and why?” can lead a freshman away at college, a senior citizen and a new community arrival to discover that all struggle with loneliness on long Sunday afternoons when family is absent and diversions are few.

2. Discomfort: No question about it, it can be awkward to start and sustain conversations with people you see infrequently who may not be similarly situated. Your first impulse may be to minimize such discomfort by putting your head down, tackling your turkey and getting out. While understandable, giving in to this impulse minimizes the chance of finding unexpected joy and connection.

Instead of avoiding the awkwardness of starting dinner table conversations, view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Try to think from the perspective of your dinner companion, at least enough to come up with a topic or question you’d be interested in hearing them address. Practice this imaginative exercise by switching places between courses, literally changing perspectives and using each moment of new discomfort to re-engage in the art of bridging into conversation.

It’s Thanksgiving, so if you’re faced with a particularly silent or off-putting companion try a question about memories or norms associated with meals — ask the newcomer what food they most miss and why, the older person what they ate as a child, the grade schooler how they feel about Italian Dunkers. You’ll learn more about them and the experiences that have shaped them than you anticipated.

3. Dialogue: Sometimes all it takes to realize that we have more common ground than we may think is recognizing that we don’t all use words in the same way. Only by engaging in dialogue can we understand its limitations.

Even if what they say seems relatively straightforward, ask your dining companions what they mean by their responses rather than assuming you know. Or start a conversation about common expressions and what they mean to each of us. When I moved to Minnesota, one of my fifth-generation Minnesotan colleagues told me I’d only truly understand my new neighbors when I could distinguish between “pretty good” and “not too bad.” Now 20 years later, I‘m still working on that. And when I write references for students who are applying to opportunities in the U.K., where I lived and taught for some years, I know that if I say they’re “competent” performers the recipient will understand it’s dizzying praise, whereas if I wrote that for an American audience they’d assume the opposite. 

Thanksgiving dinner, awkward though it may be sometimes, is a rare opportunity for each of us to focus on the simple and constructive act of finding out whether there might be more than we already know to enjoy and connect within each other. We don’t need to tackle the hard stuff of politics to do this. 

Understanding others’ experiences better, even in small ways, can help us see how to work together to make our families and communities what we want them to be. Without insights (even small ones) into how the things that are important to you came to be so, I can’t appreciate, persuade or seek change with you — whether that’s healing festering family grievances, or creating a broader social impact.

So, this Thanksgiving, I plan to take a deep breath before dinner; try to put aside personal anxieties and positional prejudices, fears and presuppositions; let myself believe, if only until we’ve finished the pumpkin pie, that we can, through this annual ritual, discover more about each other and ourselves.

Whether or not the conversation ends on a positive note, I’ll be happy when I leave the table: at worst, to escape; at best, to have found out that we can create more together than we can each stuck in our own places.

Vanessa Laird is the executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrative Leadership and is on the faculty of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, teaching multisector leadership and health law.