6 Tips for Talking Politics With Your Relatives on Thanksgiving

November 22nd 2016

Adeshina Emmanuel

It's Thanksgiving, the time of year when many travel home and find themselves sharing a dinner table with relatives whose politics may be starkly different from their own.

That could be particularly fraught in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president. 

Luckily, Peter Ditto, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in political and moral reasoning, has some suggestions for getting by.

Here are six ideas for how to engage your conservative kin.


1. Know the relationship

Talking to your sister-in-law, who you think is bad for your brother, about why she voted for Trump might not be the best idea. 

“People play off the past," Ditto told ATTN:. "Political discussions can go better if people have a positive relationship with each other to begin with. It helps as a strategy to keep in mind the broader person, that you like this person, or maybe you have to live with this person, and tone down the way you speak.”

2. Leave assumptions at the door.

Liberals and conservatives often assume the other side is extreme in its views, Ditto said. The professor believes many liberals assume a vote for Trump could only come from the worst kind of conservative who agreed with some of his misogynistic or racist statements. That overlooks the spectrum of reasons a person might have voted for the Republican presidential ticket. 

“The assumption was that if you voted for [Trump] it was because he said those offensive things — but I think what almost all the evidence suggests is that a huge proportion of people didn’t vote for him because of those things, they voted for him despite those things,” Ditto said.

3. Check your facts.

Having a conversation about the validity and integrity of our information sources is important. Given all the misinformation out there, you might want to have that conversation with yourself first. 

Social media can be a wonderful tool for finding and disseminating information, but not all that information is real. A recent report from BuzzFeed bears this out: 

"In the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others, a BuzzFeed News analysis has found."

“It’s really hard to have a productive conversation," Ditto said, "when people believe fundamentally different things about the world."

4. Affirm

“Try to find something to affirm about them, values they share,” Ditto said. “It opens people up so they’re more responsive to persuasion.”

Ditto gave the example of a conversation about gun control he had with a neighbor once. His neighbor is a firearm aficionado, in contrast to Ditto. What Ditto did was start the conversation off with, “I get why people want guns,” mentioning his own desire to protect his family. He followed that with “now, let’s talk about the details: how many guns do you need, do we need background checks?” 

5. "Understand them. Don't defeat them."

How do you know a conversation with somebody who disagrees with you has gone well? Usually, you either agree to disagree or find some point of agreement, some common ground or a shared value, Ditto said.

“Too often people think the conversation went well if they win, if they get the other person to admit they’re right, but that’s not the mark of a successful argument; try to walk away with some understanding of the person’s disagreement," Ditto said. "I would try to understand them not defeat them. It’s very difficult to win a political battle, particularly in this kind of family setting [during Thanksgiving], so it’s better to ask, "why?'"

6. Know when to bail

When things get too ugly, you might want to drop them.

Remsy Atassi is a 27-year-old Ohio native who lives in Chicago, where he owns a video production business. He admits that politics and social problems are two issues he tends to avoid discussing with his conservative family members. But it does happen sometimes, and he said he is careful to avoid ad hominem attacks.

"When you cross the threshold in a conversation to where you're personally insulting a person because of what they're telling you, and you totally shut it out, at that point there's no reason even having the conversation," Atassi said. "Because nobody is open to new ideas when they feel like they're under attack."

One important thing to remember: Beliefs are a lot like possessions, Ditto said.

“So if somebody tried to steal your stuff or tell you your stuff isn’t worth anything, then that creates problems, and you end up believing beliefs just for the sake of believing them, sometimes forgetting the broader relational context that this is somebody i’ve known for years, who I love, and I’m calling them names.”