Will Trump run in 2024?
How is Biden doing so far?
Consider those to be obvious political-debate grenades at a Thanksgiving dinner table with a mix of Republicans and Democrats. Never mind that a national election is three years away, it’s still that time of year when anxieties run rampant at the thought of engaging in a heated right-or-left political conversation over turkey and stuffing.
Yet many of the hot-button political topics this upcoming holiday season can revolve around COVID-19 – whether it be a stance on mask-wearing, vaccines or negative test requirements for a family gathering.
“We’re in pretty polarizing times, not just from the previous election but from policies on health care and even political (vaccine) positions on public figures like Aaron Rodgers or Big Bird,” said Philip Lasseigne, 33, who spent close to a decade working for Republican elected officials. “It doesn’t matter what the issues are, there’s a right or left opinion about almost anything.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said Americans who are vaccinated can “feel good about enjoying a typical” Thanksgiving. But that doesn’t mean seeing family members in a large gathering – the first in years for many families – can go over swimmingly without some mental preparation prior to the actual engagement.
Here’s a look at three dos and three don’ts for navigating potentially awkward political COVID-related conversations during the holidays.
Do go into a family gathering with a plan
Marina Harris, a licensed psychologist in North Carolina who wrote an editorial on “How to Survive Political Conversations Over the Holidays,” said preparation can be key so that emotions are in check before even hosting or traveling to a family Thanksgiving.
“We get anticipatory anxiety whenever we are about to enter an anxious situation,” Harris said. “It’s important to have a plan in place for how to approach certain topics, knowing what emotionally charges you up. It’s helpful to just know that when triggering topics come up, you can leave the room or rely on another family member.”
Harris leans on dialectical behavior therapy, a treatment that teaches people how to handle difficult situations without becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Dialectics means that two things that seem opposite can be true at the same time, and turning to the concept can be a crucial skill when navigating interpersonal situations.
That approach can be used to help quell anxiety of something that hasn’t even happened yet, with many mock arguments going on in our head, before a family gathering begins.
“I try to remind people that expectations don’t always turn into reality,” she said. “When we’re anxious, we tend to go right to the worst-case scenarios because our brain is helping us prepare. That’s all undue anxiety that works against having a balanced mindset. We want to have preparation for how we might act, but not blow it out of proportion.”
Don’t completely dismiss an opinion
Chris Davies, 32 of Champaign, Illinois, said he’s come to realize that there’s a polite way to disagree with a family member without it turning into mayhem.
“Both my family and my wife’s extended family have different political opinions than I do,” said Davies, who identifies as liberal. “My strategy has been to not dismiss what they’re saying wholesale. It’s important to respect someone’s opinion, even if you disagree with it. Then after listening, there are some topics I just won’t engage in. If there’s no way for me to leave politely, I’ll say I have to go to the bathroom, even if I don’t have to.”
Davies said 1-on-1 conversations with family members are easier to have, and that it’s helpful to have a peacemaker for the dinner table; in his family gatherings it’s been his grandmother.
“My grandpa doesn’t believe in COVID, he thinks it’s a big hoax, so that’s not a (popular) opinion,” Davies said. “My grandma reminds him it’s not something we need to talk about at the dinner table.”
Do set boundaries
Roger Cahak, 66, of Chicago, said holiday conversations have been difficult over the years because his family of origin is conservative and he’s more liberal.
“I’ve found the best way to keep the peace is to set boundaries and avoid political conversations altogether,” Cahak said. “They become too divisive and culminate in hurt feelings. And, family battles at the dinner table set a very poor example for the children.”
Harris said she sets boundaries with her own family gatherings. “I try to set a boundary by saying before to everyone that it’s best we not talk about politics,” she said. “That way, everyone knows beforehand. When I’ve said that in the past, we were able to turn it into a joke like, ‘No Fox News, it’s the holidays.’ Then with COVID, we’ve asked people to be careful for two weeks before being around my grandmother in her (90s).”
Harris noted, however, that boundaries don’t always go according to plan and it’s important not to expect those boundaries to always have ideal responses.
“It’s important to express your needs or what feels best, regardless of outcome,” Harris said, “but to also be aware that for many people, it can feel like someone is telling them what to do and most people don’t like that.”
Don’t take the bait
Lasseigne said he’ll often sense when a family member of opposing political beliefs tries to probe him at a party. His move is to quickly reframe.
“My personality is non-confrontational,” he said. “I try to view the holidays or a time together with family as chance to spend quality time with the people I love and haven’t seen since maybe since last holiday season.
“If someone brings up a strong issue that I have a strong disagreement with, I’m not going to throw down my fork in the middle of dinner and give my opinion on COVID vaccines or the results of the last election. I usually will change the subject to make the holidays about spending time with family, not debate about right and wrong. We can still have love if we have disagreements.”
Harris said she’s likewise trained herself to reframe. “I know what’s a non-negotiable topic for me,” she said. “I’m not going to get into arguments about things I believe to be human rights. I’m not going to sit and argue with something racist or sexist. Those type of things, I know what emotions they draw up but I won’t take the bait on it.”
Do find common ground
Davies said with both his children under 6 years old (and only one set to be vaccinated), he’s had to be non-negotiable with his COVID-19 safety stances. But that led to finding a bridge with family members of opposite political views.
“When I’m around people who take the pandemic seriously, it helps us find that common ground,” he said.
That’s why 1-on-1 conversations can be healthier to have during holidays and why sharing personal stories can help humanize an issue. It can also be helpful to search for holiday activities and games that bolster universality.
But that doesn’t mean that some of the commonalities will always be a saving grace. Watching football on Thanksgiving Day, for instance, could lead to a conversation about politics because of Aaron Rodgers’ decision to not receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Before that, there was political debating about players kneeling during the national anthem.
“There’s not much in our culture that is nonpolitical,” Lasseigne said. “So it’s pretty difficult to avoid conversations or issues when people can have a strong opinion on something that seems mundane.”
Don’t try to change someone’s mind
Harris said mastering interpersonal effectiveness doesn’t mean getting others to think your way.
“A small (debate) doesn’t have to be about people believing your way, it’s about feeling good about how we interacted in the situation,” she said. “If a family member flips out or is angry about a boundary, we can feel good about sticking to our values and leaving the interaction knowing we did everything we could.”
Cahak said accepting that notion of not changing someone’s mind, while difficult, has been necessary for emotional wellbeing.
“People don’t want what used to be known as political discourse,” Cahak said. “Most of us are not willing or able to hold paradox in our lives. We can’t and won’t embrace the fact that two opposites can both be true. It would be great if we could have thoughtful conversations that genuinely consider views different from our own.”