How do I survive current politics at family gatherings?

November 19 2018 | bijouxandbits
How do I survive current politics at family gatherings?
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I'm headed to my partner's family's house for Thanksgiving. My partner and I do not agree with his family on political issues and I have a feeling that there will be discussions about the Midterms and other issues. I'm not sure how to handle them, if I don't just hide away in the bathroom and ride it out.

Any advice for surviving the holidays with a family on the other side of the big political divide? – K

I'm going to scientifically estimate that over 400% of readers will agree that politics at family gatherings is something they are dealing with, not only just at family gatherings, but on the regular. Even interacting with friends casually can sometimes erupt into political drama. All of us on all ends of the political spectrum are sitting with a huge lump of existential dread. It ebbs and flows but I can't remember a time when it's ever been this polarized and stress-inducing. So: right there with ya, pal.

There are loads of tactics to employ for dealing with in-laws, how to deal with a family on the other side of politics, and generally dealing with family gatherings, but I'm not sure if most of it is still relevant. I'm torn between trying to save your sanity and promoting self care and just getting through it, and wanting to stand up and keep resisting and trying to convince your family to see your side of things. The usual how-tos just don't seem to apply anymore.

I went to the readers on Facebook because we often get high quality answers that are relevant for now. Here's what they had to say…

Longtime reader Dootsie came at with a new classic:

And this was actually in 2015… before, well anyway…

Tactic: refuse to engage

I just refuse to speak on the topic of religion or politics. And if people want to argue… there's the door.

Problem solved. – Lee Anne

This advice assumes you’re just going for dinner (not staying the weekend):

I suggest that you set a time limit (or tolerance limit) so you know when you can escape (before you spend your evening hogging the bathroom). My husband and I do this before family functions because I am easily overwhelmed by the crowds. I compare my method to the battery life of a cell phone: some phones can go all day with the right settings, and others die quickly and need to be recharged often no matter what. When I am in large groups of people, my battery is usually dead after three hours; ymmv, but I think that’s a decent benchmark for duration of your visit. If you do get to the point where you just want to hide, make an excuse and leave, even if the meal isn’t over.

While at dinner, try to change the subject (or the person with whom you are conversing) or straight up say, “talk of politics does not belong at the dinner table” if the topic of conversation veers into uncomfortable territory. If your partner’s family won’t play ball, restrict your conversation to your partner and block out your surroundings. This works best if you can snag a corner spot — that also makes it easier to escape the table if necessary. – Samantha

You don't have to react at all. You don't have to engage in political discussions at all, especially if it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to find common ground. There's just no point and people are allowed to have different opinions, and people having differing opinions doesn't have to affect you in any way. If they make a statement you don't agree with, just nod politely, or say "That's an interesting idea." Or just change the subject to something you would enjoy discussing. Or enjoy the food. – Andi

Tactic: refuse to engage unless a line is crossed

I feel like there are two good options. If they just express an opinion; I.e., “trickle-down economics are the solution to poverty,” and they expect a response, you can escape with “that’s a very interesting idea” or something similar. If they say something overtly intolerant, i.e., “our country’s gun problems are due to Islam” you can ask them not to speak that way in your presence. – Julie

Tactic: engage peacefully

I work with a lot of people who have differing political opinions than I do, and I’ve found ways to express my opinions in a way that smoothes over the divide.

They say “I don’t think a kid flipping burgers deserves $15/hr,” I say, “I just strongly believe that anyone working 40 hours a week deserves to make enough to not be on welfare.”

They say, “Obamacare has my healthcare premiums so damn high!” I say, “I think we really need to take profit out of public-good industries like healthcare and education, then companies are more inclined to take care of the human and not their bottom line." – Samantha

What's your take on familial political talk? Do you engage or retreat? Or does it depend on the company?

  1. It can help to try to determine the motivations of the speaker.
    For example, Aunt Tracy may be talking to you about educational standards because she's a teacher. I interpret that as "talking about her life/job." That's something to engage in lightly, because shutting it down is the same as telling her that her life is unimportant.
    Mom might be talking about illegal immigrants because she saw a documentary recently about it and she relates to the desperate mothers in the video. Again, she's really talking about her and her life more than politics, so engage lightly.
    Uncle Brad is talking about Obamacare because he's pissed that he has to pay so much every month for insurance. That's ranting, which means he's not looking for a dialogue. Either let him rant or ignore him until he stops. Your input is unnecessary.
    Grandpa wants to talk to you about the minimum wage because he remembers that you studied econ is school. He wants your input, so if you're up for it, talk to him about it.

    Since it's your family, you're likely to be able to tell why people are saying what they're saying. Try to remember that even if you dislike people's opinions, you love them (I assume) and if you think they're trying to talk to you about their lives and you don't want politics mixed in, you have to give them another outlet or you're shutting down the whole point of getting together. If you don't like Aunt Tracy's opinions on the politics of education, guide her toward telling you about her favorite students. Maybe ask Mom what other documentaries she's watched lately, or suggest some she may like. But the point is that you're around these people in order to communicate, relate, and develop your relationships.

    8 agree
  2. In my experience, I find that people are more inclined to bring up delicate subjects or "cross a line" when they don't know my political affiliation so I generally try to find some way to let them know ahead of time. If I can't do it ahead of time, if they surprise me at the dinner table, I'll take a punch and return it with humor : "Ha ha well as one of those 'crazy libtards' I can assure you we don't hate freedom. Now how about those Cubs?"
    To date, no one's challenged me "after the fact" and everyone has followed my "change of subject" lead so I'm afraid this is all the advice I have!

    4 agree
  3. Call me heartless, but I just… don't interact with people who are bad people. And yes, there are some political views that straight up make people bad people. Family or not, I don't associate with racists/transphobes/homophobes/etc. If they're being hurtful or stressful, or ultimately not adding good to your lives, they don't have to be a part of it.

    6 agree
  4. I 400% agree with do not engage, no matter how tempting it is. You will not likely change their opinion and get frustrated.

    In my large family, I will drift to other people/conversations when the burning topic inevitably starts (politics and in our case religion)

    This mostly works. There are certain family members who enjoying fighting and relish drama who will occasionally purposely directly try to cause me to engage. "What do you think of × (insert subject they know I do not agree with them)" they will ask. Which just goes to show they are only picking fights, but that is another thing entirely. Anyway, in that case I just politely say "You are entitled to your opinions just as I have mine. I would much rather enjoy this turkey/wine/chocolate cake/beautiful table decor." If they insist I excuse myself and leave the room, going to the bathroom or going to see what the kids are up to or helping in the kitchen.

    Save your energy for militant actions that will actually serve a purpose rather than wasting them on stubborn family members looking to ruin your holiday.

    1 agrees
  5. If it's longer than just dinner, I'm all about distractions. Depending on the crowd, this could be a classic holiday movie, blind beer tasting contest, a card or board game (especially low key, party game types), gingerbread house or cookie decorating, paper snowflakes. Get everyone involved in something that has nothing to do with who's ruining the country.

    Barring that, I'm also all about coming prepared with individual distractions. Playing too much on your phone may be seen as rude, but this could be the year you get really into watching the football game with the cousins. Or maybe you have a book or knitting project you just can't put down. Or you really want to give your brother a break by looking after his kids for the weekend. I've even been known to flee awkward family conversations to vacuum, though that one's pretty obvious and best reserved for emergencies or times you want to send a message. "Yes Auntie, I'm so uncomfortable I'd rather be doing chores."

    1 agrees
  6. Late to this party I realize. I actually do not like most of this advice above because it all falls on the side of letting potentially harmful beliefs go unchallenged. I am a peace keeper by nature. I also do think that people are entitled to their own political beliefs and religious beliefs, to a point. That point is crossed when these beliefs start to become a threat to the safety of other people. That line is crossed very quickly and easily these days. Simply commenting on who they are voting for in a mid-term is probably okay to ignore, even if they make some jab at the other candidate. Any comment that expresses racism or bigotry against any other group of people needs to be addressed.

    It is my job as a privileged person (white, straight, cis, fully-abled, etc.) to challenge harmful beliefs when expressed in my presence. Some things are not just politics, it is the safety of vulnerable humans. Not saying anything and avoiding the political conversation becomes tacit approval of those beliefs. Do not let the bigot, the homophobe/transphobe, or the racist have all of the airtime because they are the loudest. Put other views out there, even if not to change that person's mind but to provide other messages to third parties, like children, who are listening. Something short like, "it is not okay to speak about other human beings that way and I will not listen to it," is probably enough.

    4 agree
    • I'm with you on this, especially today since the rumblings of histories past seem much more visible than ever before. It's something I'm working on getting better at, even when it's uncomfortable.

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