Thanksgiving is a time of togetherness. On this special day we gather together with our loved ones, eat, drink, and feel gratitude for the good things in our lives. Sometimes these gatherings can get a little tense when people start to feel a little loose and controversial opinions start crossing the table. Many of us have that one family member who gets a little too overzealous about their opinions. If you’re dreading having an argument about politics or personal issues at the dinner table, there are a few tactics you can employ to steer the conversation to something less heavy.
Know Your Table
Ninty percent of not stepping on a landmine is knowing where the landmine is. If you’re having dinner with people you know, that means you also know their triggers. You know what they don’t want to talk about; more importantly, you know what they can’t shut up about. Understanding up front where the fault lines are at your table can help you keep an eye on them and intervene if things start to get tense. If you’re hosting the event, you can also use this knowledge to come up with the most friction-free seating arrangement possible. If you have people in your family who have a “cat and dog” relationship, seating them away from each other and creating a physical buffer zone of relatives and friends can help diffuse any drama before it breaks out.
This may not work for every table but sometimes just being upfront with your group and saying, “let’s keep things light, so no politics or religion talk” can do the trick. The key here is not to single anyone out in particular or to be too negative/judgmental about it. Just emphasize that this is a rare occasion where you all can get together and enjoy each other’s company, and that nobody wants the vibe to get wrecked by an argument.
Don’t Take the Bait
Rules or no rules, some people will test the limits regardless. This isn’t always done in bad faith; sometimes the combination of lots of good food and drink can loosen folks up to the point that they forget about boundaries. If someone at the table tries breaching a hot topic, don’t push back hard against them, call them out or debate them on the merits of whatever they said. Do not take the bait. Redirect the conversation. Talk about something else, crack a joke, ask a question from someone else, or bring up a subject that you and the other person both enjoy (maybe a movie you saw or a sport you both enjoyed). A lot of times people will take the hint and not press the issue if they see they’re not getting a rise out of you.
If an argument breaks out, de-escalate by reaffirming your boundaries. Something as simple as saying, “Aunt Karen, I love you, but I don’t want to get into a debate right now” or a calmly stated “let’s agree to disagree” can be an effective way to pump the brakes. Make it clear that you’re listening to them and that you understand what they’re saying; people will often continue to argue if they feel they’re not being heard. Even if someone at the table expresses a wildly out-of-pocket opinion, it’s best not to get personal about it. Don’t insult them, question their intelligence, say they’re wrong, or otherwise put them on the defensive; that will only make them double down. If you feel that you can’t respond to what they said without making things worse, the smart move is to excuse yourself from the table for a beat and catch your breath.
Set Up a Safe Space for Hot Topics
Some families and friend groups will respond well to a “no politics” Thanksgiving. There will be others who find that too restrictive or impossible to maintain. A good compromise is to establish a rhetorical quarantine zone, a kind of “smoking section” where people who want to talk about politics, the news, and/or other sensitive topics can congregate and shoot the breeze. Creating a space where people can be more unguarded and hash things out can also help reaffirm the dinner table as a more neutral place.
Remember: You Love These People
It’s not always possible to avoid unpleasant conversations at Thanksgiving. Arguments can break out like a wildfire that you can’t put out. In these times it’s important to remember, no matter how heated things get, that you’re here having Thanksgiving with these people for a reason. They are family, friends, loved ones, people who are a part of your community. When we argue, it’s easy to feel like we’re arguing with the topic itself and not the person you’re talking to. Remember that the person you’re talking to isn’t a stand-in for whatever greater social force or movement or thing you dislike. They’re someone you have shared history and experiences with. Maybe you don’t have common ground on this issue or others, but there must be something that binds you together that’s worth preserving. Holding onto that knowledge will ground you and keep you from saying something you’ll regret later.
All That Being Said…
Being diplomatic doesn’t mean you need to tolerate toxic people. If you love your family and they bring you joy, smoothing out the rougher edges is a good thing. But if you’re going into a situation where you’re dreading the conversations that could happen and expect to be on your guard all the time, ask yourself this: do you NEED to go? Would it be better for your peace of mind to stay home or go have a “Friendsgiving” with close friends? You don’t owe toxic people your company or respect. If you feel like this is going to be a bad experience, don’t feel bad about deciding not to subject yourself to it. If your family doesn’t lift you up, don’t give me the opportunity to bring you down.
Article by Austin Brietta
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