A Survival Guide to Talking Politics

American flag in ribbons, politics

I will be upfront and confess that I do not enjoy discussing politics, politicians, or anything of the kind. I love to talk about social issues I’m passionate about, major domestic or international events, or cultural trends. But, the second that the conversation veers to the in’s and out’s of bureaucracy and those who control said bureaucracy, I either become immensely frustrated or lose interest completely and hopelessly. Thankfully, I don’t appear to be alone, as politics typically finds itself amongst the topics that should not be discussed at the dinner table, alongside sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

Regardless, with the 2016 presidential election a mere four months away, the taboo subject frequently arises in social settings. As someone who paradoxically loves a good debate, but still fears any form of familial conflict, this seemingly unavoidable conversation is daunting. So I decided to break it down and come up with a strategy for discussing the political system with family and friends who may not be quite as…. like-minded.

Saying No
The ability to comfortably and confidently say “no” is an important life skill that is tremendously undervalued. When people bring up sensitive subjects, politics or otherwise, it can often leave you feeling cornered and unable to avoid the conversation. I think that it is important to recognize your ability to make choose what you want to talk about.

I wasn’t going to let things happen to me. I was going to direct my life.

One of my favorite Gloria Steinem quotes is, “I wasn’t going to let things happen to me. I was going to direct my life.” I find it both incredibly empowering and a helpful reminder in a world that often times appears pre-determined that I have the ability to make choices. Although Steinem was not referencing that awkward family dinner that eventually devolves into a “Trump vs. Clinton” showdown, I think the feminist icon’s message still rings true. A simple “Politics are everywhere right now, let’s take a break and talk about [insert your pick of something super benign and innocent] is a convenient way to stop the conversation before it even happens.

Diving In and Conceding
But, maybe you want to talk about politics. Maybe you’re braver than I am and want to vocalize your opinions with family and friends. Maybe you even (gasp!) are simply interested in learning more about someone else’s perspective and where they are coming from when they make their voting decisions. I truly applaud you and wish you the most engaging and civil dialogue. As someone who has also dove head first into the pool of potential conflict, I have discovered a new favorite verb: concede.

It may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think your average “dinner table debate mega intense showdown (pow pow!) over a plate of meatloaf” but it is your key to success. You certainly don’t have to compromise your core values to acknowledge that the person you are talking to has valid and valued opinions. For example, if your conversation buddy begins to go on a tirade of Secretary Hillary Clinton that includes buzzwords such as “[w]itch”, “Lewinsky”, “liar” or “emails”, there are more civil reactions than completely losing your cool (although losing your cool can be fun and I encourage you to try it out sometime). Instead, you could point out that politicians really do play a mean political game that can be frustrating. By taking this higher road, you’re telling your family member or friend that you hear what they’re saying, and even though you may not agree completely, you recognize their point of view. In my experience, these types of mild concessions are an easy way to show that you respect this person and their views.

Mild concessions are an easy way to show that you respect this person and their views.

Shut It Down
Tricky and taboo conversations frequently don’t end positively. In complete honesty, it is unlikely that you’re going to miraculously change the mind of the person you’re talking to. And that’s okay. That being said, since your political conversation is most likely going to lack that magical “eureka moment” where everyone decides to view the world like you do, you’re going to have to find an opportunity to end the conversation. Ending on a positive note is always nice, but if a positive note doesn’t seem to be in sight, I’m a big fan of the “agree to disagree” line. It recognizes that your disagreement is a normal human thing, not a reason to give someone the silent treatment or harbor resentment. The key to this line is that you have to commit to the fact that the conversation is over. Change the topic, finish your family dinner, and congratulate yourself on successfully navigating a potentially terrifying political discussion.

Furthermore, the topic of politics certainly doesn’t necessitate the drama and conflict that it frequently accompanies. It’s time to learn how to say no, handle the conversation with grace, and most importantly, know when to let it go.