How to make sure politics won’t ruin your Thanksgiving

Posted Nov. 22, 2016, at 8:30 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 22, 2016, at 2:57 p.m.

Thanksgiving this year arrives at the end of a rancorous and divisive election. Liberals are pulling their hair out with each new addition to President-elect Donald Trump’s team. And his supporters are gleeful that he’s living up to his promise to rattle the establishment.

Now, just over two weeks after the presidential election, where 48 percent of Maine voters chose Hillary Clinton, versus the 45 percent who opted for Trump, we are expected to get along and give thanks.

If gathering at the home of a cousin who supported the president elect, whom you despised, or joining a pro-Clinton clan grappling with the implications, how do you keep things from coming to blows?

“The overarching guideline is you are not supposed to get into a contentious debate at a holiday meal,” said Jodi R.R. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, who travels the country helping professionals improve their conduct and communication skills.

“Nowadays we are geographically so diverse we don’t get to see our families as much as we’d like to,” she said. “For you as a guest to bring animosity and rancor to the table is bad form.”

In advance, Smith suggests the holiday host should set clear rules. The message: Today is politics free.

“The host can say, ‘We are leaving politics aside this year, so think of other things to talk about,’” she suggested. Both the host and guest need to take charge and understand their roles. “You are there to catch up, find out what’s new and connect with people. You are not allowed to get a into a debate while eating,” Smith said.

In other words, rage has no place at the table. Think of Thanksgiving as a break from CNN headlines, polls, mean tweets and memes.

“The pre-election lasted 2½ years. It was a down and dirty elections cycle, so contentious and so emotional,” Smith said. “Coming right before Thanksgiving in a short November, everything is compressed. … It’s too fresh. We need to let things settle.”

Whether you voted Democrat or Republican, male or female, conservative or liberal, there are ways to prevent this day of food, rest, pigskin and thanks from becoming a political football.

Carrie Riley, a public relations director in Portland, grew up in a family with a strict “no politics, no religion at the table” rule. “You can talk in corners while mingling over cocktails,” Riley said. “But if you bring politics up over a meal, “you will get a dirty look and be asked to leave the table.”

Though opinions and religious beliefs are honored at her family gatherings, “this year will be a good test,” said Riley, who travels to New Jersey to be with relatives she hasn’t seen in a while. Like most of us who have blocked opposing views on our Facebook feeds and haven’t reached out to siblings who backed the other candidate, she is unsure what political environment she will be walking into.

“My father and aunt are of that old school, where you don’t tell people who you voted for,” Riley, who voted for Clinton, said. “I have my suspicions.”

But the 41-year-old is not about to push their buttons — at least not while passing the parsnips.

“I’m not going to a rally. I’ve chosen to be with family this year, and I’m not going to change opinions,” Riley, who lives in Falmouth, said. “I don’t think Thanksgiving and the holidays is the time.”

For undergrads leaving the protective bubble of a college campus, emotional intelligence applies when it comes to dealing with more conservative or liberal friends and relatives.

“Use your judgement. Sometimes it’s wise to lean in, sometimes it’s best to lean back and keep quiet,” said Jeffrey Selinger, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College, adding that many students there are distressed about the election. “Read the situation. There are different kinds of parents out there, some may be hostile and have a temperamental outlook,” he said.

The main thing, to avoid conflict that could ruin more than digestion, is to be aware and be prepared for battle.

“Are you walking into a house where people are with me or have a different worldview?” Smith asked. “I am looking to steel myself to be polite even if provoked, before I get there.”

That means, brush up on your small talk so you “don’t default into politics when it’s still too raw,” she said. “Arrive with nonpolitical topics of discussion,” Smith said. “The only way we can come together is through some neutral conversation, but at someone else’s Thanksgiving table is not the time or the place for strife.”

 

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