How to handle — or avoid — tough topics at the Thanksgiving table

Having barely caught our breath after a cantankerous campaign season, we are now faced with the prospect of holiday gatherings full of divergent political opinions. Last year Americans overwhelmingly dreaded political talk at Thanksgiving, and this year promises to be no different. As you pass the stuffing and gravy, how do you handle potentially fractious conversations that can sour the Thanksgiving celebration?

A recent poll found that more than eight in 10 Americans want to leave our current political polarization behind. Clearly, we can’t expect to put our divisions behind us overnight, let alone at one meal. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to inject more civility into our Thanksgiving conversations.

It was the importance of relationships that first attracted both of us to the American Ethical Union (AEU), a humanist alternative to traditional religions. As Ethical Culture Clergy Leaders, we don’t pray for God’s help as we sit down to eat, but we do search for inspiration in ourselves and others to bring out our best on this day of gratitude. Before eating, whether in the days before or in a blessing of sorts at the start of the meal, set a positive tone.

You could keep it straightforward with a simple toast expressing thanks and gratitude. More effective may be acknowledging the elephant in the room, and then respectfully setting it to the side, at least during the dinner. Many present — also trying to recover from the election — might nod in hearty agreement. They too might want a time to deepen relationships with one another free of the toxicity of partisan bickering. Deep relationships are something almost all people say they want.

These examples are best-case scenarios, of course. We readily acknowledge that talk of politics during Thanksgiving has become a tradition almost as strong as watching football. If it’s not possible to avoid these discussions, try framing the issues differently. Almost every issue before our legislative bodies is presented as a battleground. Rather than matching that state of mind, you can suggest that tough topics be approached instead as a joint cooperative effort. Instead of fighting, Arlie Hochschilde, professor emerita at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the creators of "the sociology of emotion," points out that many of us build “empathy walls” that divide us. She recommends that we disengage our internal "alarm systems” and listen to each other's "deep stories" — the narratives behind our attitudes and beliefs. Ask them about their childhood, or powerful experiences that shaped them.

Speaking in “I statements” is another way to constructively address comments you find hurtful. If your Aunt Edna makes a racist statement about a group of people, you shouldn’t hesitate to call it out. But rather than attacking her personally, appeal to her as a human and explain why what she said was so offensive. This demonstrates a level of respect for the person while not sacrificing ethics in the name of family peace and tranquility.

Of course, each person will have to decide what’s more important to them about family gatherings. Those who see winning arguments as key may not have many more opportunities to address tough topics in a family setting. Family relationships can break and lead to decades of estrangement. But if you want to nurture family cohesion, you might find that the healthier the relationship, the greater the chance to find common ground if not this Thanksgiving, then in the future and for the rest of your lives.

We value relationships that are open, honest, compassionate and real. We’re not talking about a superficial “niceness.” It may be necessary to acknowledge that you don’t all agree politically. A good rule for large family gatherings, and for life, is to strengthen relationships first. So as you sit down at the dinner table, follow this ideal. You’ll find that even the most difficult of conversations can be constructive.

Hugh Taft-Morales is leader of the Baltimore Ethical Society (HughTM@gmail.com) and the Philadelphia Ethical Society. Bart Worden (bworden@aeu.org) is executive director of the American Ethical Union.

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