The election might be over, with Joe Biden as the new president-elect and Kamala Harris as the new (and first female) vice president-elect, but that doesn’t mean people are done talking about politics. No matter where you stand on the results, the 2020 presidential election was a big one for our country, and if the historically high voter turnout had anything to show us, it’s that when it comes to politics right now, people care—and care deeply. But what happens when your estranged uncle or out-of-town cousin asks you to pass the peas on Thanksgiving with a side of political banter? What’s the proper way to (politely) react? What do you say when things get heated?
The reality is that political polarization has come to define the U.S. at an alarming rate: one 2020 study found that the U.S. is polarizing faster than other democracies around the world, due largely in part to social media and political messaging that permeates our lives. As such, our political beliefs are ones that we hold incredibly close, and while family members can mean well, it may not be the best topic to bring up at Thanksgiving dinner. Regardless of if you choose to do an in-person or virtual holiday celebration this year, it’s true that stress and tensions can run high during this time. Plus, during a year that has been ruled by division (be it over politics or mask-wearing or just who the next Bachelorette is), you can never be too sure of what might be said.
If you’re wondering how to navigate a tricky political conversation at dinner, we tapped top psychologists for their expert advice. Arm yourself with these tactics and helpful phrases to use if things get tense. As Dr. Tiffany C. Brown, PsyD, MA, tells us, “You can’t control what others want to discuss but you can control whether you engage or not.”
How to deal with a political conversation at dinner:
1. Come prepared.
“Most of us know what we're walking into when we visit with family members/loved ones, so we tend to know how the conversation will go,” says Dr. Kimberly M. Daniels, PsyD. She explains that you can start mentally preparing before the actual event by thinking about what's likely to be said and how you might want to respond. For example, she says it can be helpful to have an escape plan or phrase to say if a political conversation suddenly turns sour. Try something like, “Excuse me, I have to check something in the kitchen,” and exit the vicinity for a moment. Or, you can say, “I’m sorry, I can’t get into this with you right now, please excuse me.” Dr. Daniels explains that while honesty is always the best policy, you have to look out for your own mental wellbeing, so it's more than okay to have an excuse made up ahead of time.
Allison Hewett, MA, LPC, says you can also try to keep politics from coming up all together by creating a list of questions you would like to ask your family to keep the conversation lighthearted. According to her, this allows you to be proactive about not giving politics a time or place to come up.
Additionally, Dr. Daniels says to go into the dinner knowing who your allies are. “If you know that [your] cousin Kristen shares your same views, talk to her beforehand about how the two of you can handle these conversations together. If there's no one else in your family who shares your views, take someone with you who is supportive and who can either intervene in a difficult conversation or get you out of it," she says.
2. Know that you do not have to engage.
If politics do come up, keep in mind that you are under no obligation to engage in a conversation that is going to make you frustrated or uncomfortable.
Hewett says if politics enter the conversation and you're not interested in participating, simply smile and nod your head. "You do not have to take part in the conversation," she says. If you need to, our experts say it is perfectly okay to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or kitchen, or even suggest a walk to one of your other relatives as a way to physically leave what could potentially become a triggering conversation. As Dr. Daniels points out, "it's not a game if you don't play."
Of course, it can be difficult not to engage, and even more difficult to shut down the conversation because it is bothering you, but Dr. Daniels says that sometimes no reaction is the best reaction because it gives the other person no fodder to continue their fight. If you need to, be direct, but polite. "Put on a straight face and breathe," says Dr. Daniels. Then, try one of these phrases:
"Look, we just don't agree on this. You won't convince me, I won't convince you so let's change the subject."
"This conversation isn't going anywhere that's helpful for either of us so for the sake of our relationship, let's talk about something else."
"We need to just agree to disagree and not discuss it."
"I understand that you have strong feelings and opinions about this and so do I. We're both allowed to hold these opinions. But talking about them isn't helpful to our relationship so let's move on."
"This is not a conversation that's going to be helpful so it needs to stop. If you cannot respect that, I have no choice but to leave."
3. Acknowledge someone else's opinions, but don't try to change their mind.
There is a time and place to crusade for more open-mindedness, but Thanksgiving dinner just isn't it. Our experts say that trying to change someone else's mind when it comes to politics can actually end up causing more stress on both sides of the aisle. "As individuals, we have to be conscious that not everyone shares our views, thoughts, and opinions," says Dr. Brown. Instead of using your energy to argue a point, channel it into staying calm and rational.
"The goal is to be non-violent, and not try to convince everyone else of your opinion," says board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Alex Dimitriu, M.D. "When someone is intense or passionate, they want to evoke the same response in you," he says. Don't fight back. Instead, Dr. Dimitriu says to move on and proactively present mindfulness, or an open, non-judgemental focus, to re-center yourself. "Realize that people will believe what they want to, as much as you do," he says.
4. Use humor to ease up on the intensity level.
Whether or not it is a laughing situation, sometimes you can use humor to your advantage to cut the tension and swiftly change the topic. "Humor can be a great tool for breaking down walls and making people feel at ease," says Hewett. You can jokingly point out that you'll never see eye to eye on a subject, and then change the trajectory of the conversation by bringing something else up.
5. If you have an emotional response to something that is said, it's okay to excuse yourself.
"Sadly, there are family members who like to bring up political discussions because they know they're triggering and will get a reaction," says Dr. Daniels. If this happens, it's okay if you may or may not feel comfortable sharing those emotions with the whole family.
"If you're someone who doesn't mind others seeing you emotional, just talk about why this is upsetting to you," says Dr. Daniels. "However, if you know that's not going to be accepted by everyone else at the table—and especially if you know that you're going to be teased/insulted/etc—then, by all means, find a way to excuse yourself." She explains that because our political leanings can often be based on emotion and rooted in fear, it's totally normal to have a strong reaction. But it is important to consider your environment and whether or not you're comfortable being honest about why you're upset. You can be completely honest as to why you're leaving, or you can make up an excuse. "The bottom line is protecting yourself however you need to," says Dr. Daniels.