How to Talk About Politics Over Christmas Dinner

by India Essuah

Some tips on what to do when faced with the opinions you’ve spent the year avoiding.

Illustration: Suzanne Lustig

December 25, 3.37pm. The table’s littered with cracker jokes, the turkey’s just bones and everyone’s eaten too much of Aunt Julie’s roulade. The only thing on your mind is whether you have room for that sixth eclair, when the air suddenly changes. The chat about the glorious weather outside has quickly turned to climate change, and the resulting disagreement has you sweating as much as the phenomenon itself. Last year, this was the precise moment you convinced everyone to go on a beach walk to dissolve the tension. But what if there was a way you could let this play out, while avoiding a family meltdown? The road away from political polarisation could begin right here, in your backyard – if you’re up for it. If so, read on for a few tips on what to do when the festive chat turns tense.

Keep perspective
It can be easy to miss in the heat of the moment, but (as above) the first reaction you’ll have when someone says something you disagree with will happen in your body. Especially if you’ve decided that this is your chance to say something, your heart will likely be racing, your stomach might drop and your palms become slick. There’s nothing wrong with stepping outside for a breather, particularly if someone has said something that feels personal. If it’s going to bug you that you didn’t get a chance to say something, you could raise the topic again with them when you’ve collected your thoughts. It’s impossible to listen and learn when you’re feeling worked up, so it may be best to look for an opening when you’re calmer.

All ears
Think about how good it feels when someone’s really tuned into what you’re saying. Wouldn’t you be more open to hearing from them, over someone yelling at you from across the table? Despite what YouTube is trying to teach us about how a successful political discussion goes, nobody should be trying to ‘own’ anyone with a quip that leaves them embarrassed. If this happens and someone’s turning red-faced, it probably is a good time to suggest that walk. Listening to something you find offensive might require some deep breathing, but you’re going to have a much clearer sense of the ideas they might be open to if you can understand their point of view. Ask questions, show you’re actually listening by reflecting their ideas back to them, and really try to get a grasp of where they’re coming from. If you dig deep, there could be some pretty personal stories in the mix. Walls might come down when you start to see the person’s ideas as being a result of their experiences – just like yours are. Funny that.

Facts don’t help all that much
As a Virgo, there’s nothing I love more than evidence-based reasoning. But seriously, basing your opinions on research is definitely the right way to go, but when it comes to politicised discussions, these are only going to get you so far. People have usually already made up their minds by the time they start finding facts to back it up. Instead of battling to remember those convincing stats from that opinion column you read back in July, think about real-life examples that stand out to you, or those lofty ideas you have about how you wish the world could be. Sure, you might come across as earnest or idealistic, but it’s likely to take the chat to somewhere more interesting, less argumentative, and be more inclusive of people on the sidelines who might have great ideas, but are put off by intensely analytical conversations.


Be realistic
Our minds tend to change fairly slowly… If at all. If you think about the ideas that have affected you, they probably started out as seeds that took time to grow – which is a good thing. Imagine stepping outside each morning, knowing you could have a conversation with someone convincing, who would upset all of your worldviews at once? This would leave you feeling wobbly and overwhelmed, as solid beliefs help you to make sense of the world, make decisions, and generally make life feel more stable. It may be harder to apply this to people whose opinions differ from yours, but there’s no point thinking you’ll be able to change someone’s mind on the spot. Aim for something simple, like finding common ground, or understanding their point of view more clearly. You never know where it might lead. And if things really do turn sour, head to the beach, or back to your Twitter bubble. There’s always next year.