Donald Trump’s recent election victory came as an unexpected shock to much of the country, leaving befuddled Hillary Clinton supporters without closure. Like the Civil War, this contentious election often pitted friends and family against each other, and in the aftermath many who can’t let it go want to keep debating politics, even—or perhaps especially—at upcoming holiday get-togethers. That includes The New York Times, which has issued a guide to having “that tough conversation” with loved ones this Thanksgiving about what it calls “the ugliest presidential campaign in modern times.”
“The voters you blame, whose ballots—for Clinton or Trump—so mystify and offend you, are not a distant, unfamiliar America,” the Times article begins. “They are sitting across the dinner table, or the office cubicle, or the bed. They are your parents, your siblings, your friends. . . [L]ike it or not, these people are in your life. The holidays are upon us. And deep down, you may actually want to have this talk. You may need to have this talk.”
You may want to have that talk, if politics consumes your life, but no, you don’t need to have this talk with family and friends gathered for the Thanksgiving holiday, which is a time for gratitude, humility, joy, and togetherness. Perpetuating this brawl of an election by forcing a political interrogation on those around you during the holidays is guaranteed to be awkward at best and destructive of relationships at worst.
The Times guide lays down some ground rules such as “Don’t jump right into politics—just catch up first” (which reads as if the Times is suggesting you get the inconsequential stuff out of the way so you can get to the really important topic – politics). Also, “Forget policy debates for now” (yes, save the policy debate for Christmas, if the other person is still willing to spend another holiday with you after you’ve ruined Thanksgiving).
The guide includes such probing questions as “What do you think most needs to change about this country?” and “What is a position my candidate held that you agree with?” It also includes such comically heavy-handed questions as “Describe your relationship to me.” “Are we close?” “Do you think I’m sexist or racist?” “Do you still like me?” The answer to that last question is likely to be “Not anymore,” thanks to you wedging your political disgruntlement into what otherwise should be a time for friends and family to unite in gratitude for our blessings.
Other questions sure to make people avoid you include, “Has it been difficult to talk to me about this election? If so, why?” “Are you uncomfortable about any aspect of how America is changing?” “Do you feel ignored or misunderstood as a voter? If so, for how long?” Did the Times seriously think that most people will be comfortable being cornered in the kitchen and asked to answer these questions? They just came in to get more eggnog!
There is a good reason why etiquette guides recommend against discussing politics and religion in casual company. While these are fascinating and important topics, they are potentially—perhaps inevitably—personal, sensitive, and divisive, and it takes no small measure of intellectual detachment on both sides to discuss them without creating ill will or even becoming inflamed.
If your family isn’t close, pressuring them during a holiday celebration to explain why they don’t agree with your political worldview isn’t going to resolve your differences and bring you all any closer together, even if you derive some satisfaction from it because you can’t let the election result go. If your family is close but some of you are on opposite sides of the political fence, it’s only likely to leave an unpleasant aftertaste in some mouths.
Here’s a suggestion that will go a long way toward making this Thanksgiving and other holiday get-togethers ones that everyone will remember happily and look forward to repeating: just for the duration of the holidays, tune out the outside world—particularly the agitating world of politics—and focus on the human bond with your friends and family. Focus on your blessings. Focus on the meaning of the season and your spiritual well-being. Focus on the people you may not have seen much of this year, and renew your connection.
Politics may be inescapable in the larger scheme of things, but life isn’t only politics (and if your life is only politics, you need an intervention). So leave that list of questions from the New York Times behind. Don’t ask which candidate your family members voted for; that’s why we have private ballots. Don’t press them on whether they still like you or think you’re racist. All you need to get things started and on the right track is one question: “How have you been?”