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How to survive Thanksgiving when politics loom large

If the first Thanksgiving after the election was tense, experts say this year's holiday will be even worse. Here's how to navigate your family's gathering.
Image: Traditional Holiday Stuffed Turkey Dinner
Last year, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, families shortened their turkey dinners by 20-30 minutes.GMVozd / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a family member with politics you find appalling will say something infuriating at the Thanksgiving table.

We’ve been here before. The first Thanksgiving after the 2016 election was so tense that politically-divided families shortened their turkey dinners by 20-30 minutes last year, one study found.

This Thanksgiving — the first after the inauguration of President Trump — people are as dug in as ever, experts say, but instead of pondering just the election results, they now have policies argue about — everything from health care and taxes to immigration.

This Year, It's Not Just One Thing — It's Dozens

“The challenge we have for this Thanksgiving… is you’re still walking into a minefield, except now you have 17 different kinds of mines, versus one kind,” said Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the School of Public Health at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“Last year, you could say, ‘Alright, we’re not talking about the election.’ But this year, you almost cannot get into a social topic without getting into politics.”

Even a subject as innocuous as the weather could lead to a debate about climate change.

“I have never encountered anything remotely like what we’ve had going on at dinner tables across America the last couple of years,” said Thomas P. Farley, also known as “Mister Manners” and an etiquette expert at What Manners Most.

“Some people are even skipping out on family gatherings because they just simply don’t want to deal with the conversations.”

Don’t deprive your family of your presence just for that reason. Here are a few tips for hosts and guests to keep in mind:

1. Don’t talk about politics — just don’t do it

The No. 1 rule is to avoid talking about politics at the family Thanksgiving gathering — it’s not worth it and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind.

The hosts should set down ground rules, particularly if they know there are family members who are going to spar, Farley said. You can say on the invitation: “Host’s prerogative: I would like to request no political conversation at the party whatsoever — let’s focus on what we’re thankful for.”

2. Do allow a conversation about sexual harassment

With so many stories about sexual misconduct coming to light this year, Klapow predicts there will be much more family discussion about intimacy, flirting, workplace harassment and sex.

“I would tell every adult who is going into Thanksgiving: You’d better be prepared for the topic to come up,” he said.

A family member may share a #MeToo story, revealing for the first time she was assaulted. Teenagers may ask tough questions about what it means to grope, fondle or expose. The topic is too important to avoid, Klapow said. If it comes up, a calm discussion about respect, and what’s right and wrong, is fine — just be aware there may be children listening. Some conversations should be more private, he advised.

3. Designate a “politics zone”

If some guests would enjoy a respectful political debate, the host can designate a room in the house where they can talk, but out of earshot of everybody else, Farley said.

“Once they return to the table, that’s it, case closed, no more politics,” he noted. “That prevents other people from getting dragged in.”

4. Don’t take the bait and get into an argument

If guests are ignoring the no-politics rule, you may be strongly tempted to get sucked into an argument. Just take the high road, Farley advised.

Constantly remind yourself that you’re sitting across family, friends, loved ones or, at the very least, other human beings, Klapow added. What’s the benefit of a heated discussion right now? Be aware you’re not on social media when you’re talking with your family, so quick off-the-top-of-your-head responses may not be appropriate and you’re definitely not anonymous, he noted.

Pay attention to your emotions: If you’re agitated and feel your pulse quickening, your face getting flushed and your voice rising, it’s time to de-escalate.

“The easiest way to do this is to say: ‘You know what? This is getting heated and I don’t want to do that right now,’” Klapow suggested. “If you choose not to engage… you’ve removed yourself and you may be setting the example for the room.”

5. Have a wingman

If you know a relative will try to engage you in a conversation you can’t escape, make your spouse, friend or sibling aware about it ahead of time. The moment the person starts needling you, your wingman can interrupt and say, “Let’s not talk about this. Let’s keep today politics-free,” Farley advised.

6. Use humor to deflect

The more lighthearted you can keep your responses, the better. Humor is a great deflector, Farley said.

If a relative who is looking for an argument asks: “What do you think of President Trump?” You can say, “I’ve always wondered what his favorite food would be at the Thanksgiving table. That’s what I’m wondering right now.”

7. Take a breather

“Always have an escape route,” Klapow advised. Exit the situation, take a breath and restore your sanity. It could be as basic as asking the hosts whether they need help in the kitchen or announcing you’re going to step out to get some fresh air or a latte from the local café.

But don’t flee in a huff because that leaves behind “emotional exhaust,” Klapow said. Always leave on neutral or good terms.

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