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How to prevent political arguments this Thanksgiving

Political science professor Scott Clifford recommends practicing humility, listening and focusing on shared goals to avoid political clashes this Thanksgiving. | Gerald Sastra/The Cougar

Thanksgiving is meant to be a time for gratitude and family gathering. But for some, the holiday devolves into fights over politics before dessert can be served. 

While it’s yet unclear whether you’ll clash with that one disagreeable relative this year, one thing’s for sure: celebrations in a pandemic are bound to look different than Thanksgivings past.

Many traditions are placed on hold as people forego traveling and spend the holiday socially distanced from family and friends. 

One thing that won’t change? The potential for political disagreements, whether it be across the dinner table or over Zoom.

The pandemic, election and unrest over racial injustice of the past year create what psychology professor John Vincent refers to as “a perfect storm” for emotions around political topics to run high. 

 “The emotions, after a certain point, completely take over,” Vincent said. “I think when that happens, the likelihood of meaningful discourse immediately approaches zero.” 

Thanksgiving get-togethers place relatives that don’t see each other often in close proximity, which can lead to some tense conversations, said associate professor of political science Scott Clifford. 

“During the holidays, we’re typically getting together with a big group of people who we don’t often see or talk to on a regular basis,” Clifford said. “So we may not be aware of where each other stands on various issues and might accidentally wander into an argument. And I’m sure alcohol doesn’t help!”

The fact that we’re in the midst of a presidential election doesn’t help either, Clifford said. 

“The holidays happen close to elections, so politics is in the news and more likely to be on our minds,” Clifford said. “The stakes feel higher and we have stronger and more partisan opinions about politics.” 

To avoid raised-voice conversations about this year’s election results, Vincent advises setting boundaries at a gathering’s outset and stopping political discussions before they can start going south. 

“I think it’s a really good idea to start off by saying something like, ‘we all have different opinions, we have different perspectives on things,'” Vincent said.

‘”And what I would strongly appreciate is … if we could put all that aside for the moment and not spend our time debating differing points of view and try to focus on the places where we have commonality,'” Vincent added.

If you don’t want to put a moratorium on political talk at the Thanksgiving table, Vincent says conversations on politics need to be grounded in a mutual respect for one another and the relationship’s value to prevent things from getting out of hand.  

“It depends on how strong the opinions are,” Vincent said. “I think some of us can debate a differing point of view, we can be respectful of the fact that even though I disagree with you, I have to respect that you have your own opinions and you have your reasons for having those opinions.” 

If you’re unsure whether talking about politics with your own family this Thanksgiving is a good idea, Clifford suggests taking this interactive quiz

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