Them’s Fightin’ Words!

Tips for handling post-pandemic festivities (Part 2)

It has become sort of a cultural trope: the uncle who everyone dreads to invite to Thanksgiving dinner because his political views differ entirely from everyone else’s and everyone just knows he is going to end up getting into an argument at the dinner table and ruin the whole thing. Some of you might even have this uncle in your family.

God forbid, but some of you might even be that uncle.

This uncle showing up at the door is like the final scenes in an old spaghetti Western, where the fastest draw in the west stands before the local blowhard, their fingers trembling by the butts of their six-shooters until the church bell strikes noon and they draw and fire.

The tension builds. Sweat beads on everyone’s brows. The whole family is walking on eggshells, doing everything in their power to avoid setting Uncle Jim off.

Of course, someone always does. And then everyone has to hear about whatever hot button topic was pushed for the rest of the night. And there simply is not enough egg nog to soften the blow to familial morale.

In an attempt to avoid the annual fistfight, today I would like to give you a crash course in talking about (particularly) controversial subject matter. Though these tips can apply to any discussions you may be having around the table this holiday season (and in light of recent news, this is one of the most important things I have written all year).

Thanksgiving falling when it does in relation to current events, controversial topics are going to come up. There is simply no getting around it. So everything I share from here on out is going to prepare you to talk about those matters in a way that can, hopefully, diffuse and outright avoid the volatility of some discussions.

Firstly, make sure you know your audience. You know full well that Uncle Jim is ravenously partisan. He embraces his ideology and is outright consumed by it. He has quit churches and written off family members because of something they have said or done that simply does not align with his worldview. Or at least you should.

The fact is, particularly during the holidays, since we are spending time with our families, this often makes us lazy about knowing these people. They are family and so we just assume their existence and rarely take the time to get to know them. Especially those members of our family that we do not see often or interact with regularly. So take the time to learn a bit about whoever is coming to the festivities. Get them to talk about themselves and actively listen to what they have to tell you. This will greatly reduce your chances of pressing the wrong button and setting off a nuclear reaction at the dinner table.

Secondly, know where you stand. If we lack confidence in our own ideas, this opens the door for quick, emotion-based responses to the things people say to us. We might feel a certain way about an issue, but if we lack good reasons for feeling that way, then every response is going to be based on feelings rather than truth.

Thirdly, and this is directly connected with being confident in your own positions, have reasoned responses. It should go without saying that if you hold a position that is different from someone around you, that they are likely to poke at that. Intentionally or otherwise. This is why it is important to have reasoned responses. You will be prepared to dispel a mischaracterization or correct a misunderstanding of the issue without resorting to the name-calling and verbal assault that has become so common in our current environment.

Fourthly, embrace nuance. The thing that causes the most tension between individuals of differing viewpoints is this misguided notion that there are only two positions on any issue: a right one and a wrong one. But this is not always the case. Many of the issues that divide us are this way. There are indeed issues with clear-cut right and wrong positions, but those are rarely things that we get hung up on.

Embracing nuance also leads us to have a better understanding of where others stand. Not only do we more clearly see where they may have it wrong, but we can also more clearly see where they may have it right.

Lastly, know when to stop. Embracing nuance leads directly to this last point. If you are willing to see the subtleties of the controversies of the day then you can more clearly see the stopping point. As I stated above, once you are able to see and then embrace nuance, you can acknowledge where your own worldview is flawed and where others’ have it right (and vice versa) and can step back and say, “Cool. You have given me something to think about. Now let us eat!”