As extended family members reunite tomorrow, the internet will be sure to deliver good advice on how to navigate discussions on hot topics from from tax reform to whether Thanksgiving should be a holiday at all. “Don’t mention Trump on Thanksgiving,” says FiveThirtyEight, warning that mentioning the US president comes with a 37% probability of starting a fight. But here’s a better piece of advice: Go ahead, bring Trump up, bring up all the controversial political issues, and argue.
Thanksgiving is the ultimate American family holiday—one that unites people across religions in the celebration of a history rosily misremembered. Like other US national holidays, it comes with big sales and displays of patriotism—but this one is also about eating (and not just barbecues), gratitude and, of course, family.
Talking politics with family is a privilege, as Kira Bindrim wrote a few weeks ago in an essay about discussing discrimination with her father. America is more divided and partisan than ever. Conservative and liberals alike live in social media bubbles that seldom intersect. It’s rare to be able to talk seriously with someone who thinks differently from you, but will sit and listen anyway—whether that’s because they love you, or perhaps because the temptation of the steaming turkey in front of them is simply too great.
Naturally, starting these debates isn’t easy, and there are better ways than others to bring up uncomfortable topics. For this, some organizers of the Women’s March have devised Daring Discussions: a toolkit to help frame sensitive conversations with respect, and without hiding negative feelings. The toolkit was presented on Nov. 13 at the Glamour Woman of the Year summit in New York by Rutgers University professor Tamara Lee. It is tailored specifically for “contentious conversations” with loved ones.
These rules are primarily designed to help people confront others about privilege in its many forms, usually at events where privilege is the headline issue. But with a bit of tweaking, the same rules can help anyone have a heated, but civil, Thanksgiving and also perform their civic duty.
Before you begin
Turn off your phone. You might want to disengage from the debate at some point and scroll through those tweets you have missed—do not give into temptation. Arguing takes commitment and respect, so show some.
How to start
Calmly and clearly state what you would like to talk about. Pose a question to someone, or to the whole table, and try to word it in a way that doesn’t sound accusatory. Ask if the other person(s) would like to discuss this, too—in other words, don’t monologue your way into forcing a reply.
If they agree to engage, lay the ground work by making clear that it’s a discussion, not a fight; and acknowledging that while things might be about to get uncomfortable, you will all hopefully learn something.
During the conversation
Try not to express judgement. Show your feelings if you feel judged, and explain why. Allow people to take time to reply. Don’t cut them off, and don’t rush them. If you’re lucky, solid amounts of thinking will be done, and thinking takes time.
Forget about being right. Yes, it feels great, but it’s not the point here. This is all about trying to identify the root values of your beliefs, and of your family.
Words can hurt. Needless to say, you should not deliberately hurt anyone, and should not be hurt: Speak up if you feel mistreated. If you sense that the conversation is heading towards a less than respectful territory, feel free to turn attention to other topics, like the age-old question of whether it is appropriate to call stuffing stuffing, when it does not come inside a bird.
How to end
It can actually be useful to summarize what people are saying to you, so you can be sure you understand it correctly. It’s equally important to acknowledge when a point is made that you had not thought about, or if you are able to see things in a different perspective. No one will leave the dinner a new person—but hopefully everyone will walk away with a few new thoughts.
It’s fine to end the conversation at any point: If you feel like it’s going nowhere, if you are tired, or if you just want to delve deep into some distant cousin gossip. Just thank people for debating with you—gratitude is what Thanksgiving is all about, after all.