Q. Shouldn’t I be free to express my political beliefs at the table with family and relatives?
A. One should be free to express their political beliefs with their relatives and, particularly if you are politically engaged, you might find it impossible not to. Religion and politics are lumped together precisely because, in addition to involving deeply held personal beliefs, they reveal to others who you are right now.
And it’s hard to have a tight relationship with someone who doesn’t know what you think, feel or believe!
The cost of engaging in what is called “cross-cutting political communication” at the dinner table, though, comes with the high probability of egging on conflict and making others uncomfortable in a setting designed for people to come together and enjoy each other’s company.
Japanese friends have introduced me to a great saying, “TPO,” which stands for “time, place and occasion.” This serves as a great social compass, a consciousness of one’s environment that is the soul of etiquette—which is the practice of positive regard for the places you go and the people you encounter.
Q. How do you keep yourself from joining the fracas when you hear something that arouses your political buttons?
A. Remembering my role and goal can keep me from jumping in the fray. Host duties come with the responsibility of being a referee, if not the outright peacemaker, in the interest of captaining an enjoyable event. And being a guest means bringing positivity, or at the very least, not bringing conflict to a party.
This doesn’t mean that you are agreeing or endorsing opposing political views, either, it means you are choosing a higher goal at the moment. The success of the saying, “We’ll have to agree to disagree,” has to do with the fact that it acknowledges that differences do exist while simultaneously conceding to bury the hatchet, at least for the moment.
Though you might not always be successful in keeping the environment as smooth as vermouth, you will have no regrets for having tried. By joining in, not matter how justified or right it might feel at the time, I am simply adding more noise to the conflict. I’m sorry to say I’ve been there, and it never felt good afterward.
Q. What do I do when I’m the odd man out at a table of people who share the same political identity—and my party or candidate is the verbal piñata?
A. If silence in this situation is, for you, suffering then I recommend you suffer no more. You have options, such as politely asking that the subject be changed or even making a joke, perhaps something along the lines of, “Well, I am happy to see diversity is alive and well in our family” or “I see the apple has fallen far from the tree. Okay, it’s in a different orchard.”
If the hint is not taken, and the bashing persists, along with the rise of your inner ire, you can restate your request that the subject be changed or suggest that another time might be more appropriate for the discussion. If you feel the situation is becoming one of harassment or even verbal abuse, you are well within your rights to excuse yourself or leave the situation altogether.
Q. What option do I have if I’m a guest and the host wants to have a spirited political debate at the table?
A. Spirited political debates among folks holding opposing political ideologies are about as common as seeing the Easter Bunny moonwalk down Seventh Avenue. I am thinking you’re referring to those saucy table debates that have little chance of blooming into full-scale fighting words because they occur among those who share political premises, such as collectivism or individualism, but differ on aspects of similar policies or support candidates from the same party.
Assuming that politics does not bore you to spinnakers, there is usually no harm in such debates, because the probability of negative conflict is low. If, on the other hand, your host is fond of seeing his friends brawl, then I suggest a reassessment of the relationship and pressing pause on the acceptance of further invitations.
If you happen to be caught on the sidelines, a silent bystander of a debate that has gone from spirited to mean-spirited, you have the option of excusing yourself from the table. Hopefully by the time you return, the topic will have become more palatable and the room full of good cheer.
An emergency measure remarkably effective at achieving verbal cease-fires is to firmly remind everyone at the table that you care about them more than you will ever care about any politician.