In 2000, I got into a horrible fight about politics with my brother at Thanksgiving dinner. The U.S. presidential election had still not been decided officially, a recount was underway and the Supreme Court had not weighed in with its opinion that George W. Bush had won, though most people assumed he had. It was the first time I realized how sharply my brother and I disagreed on political issues. The argument upset me and it was one of the worst Thanksgiving holidays I can remember.
In 2001, two and a half months after Sept. 11, I decided — for the first time in my life — not to make the big trip home to my family’s home in Iowa for Thanksgiving and instead spend it in my like-minded friends’ apartment in Chicago. In a time that our hearts were still raw and broken over the terrorist attacks and political arguments over national security and civil rights were playing out, I did not have the stomach for a repeat dinnertable clash.
It’s a family dinner, not Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table.
Fifteen years later, the country is more polarized than ever and many people anticipate fights over politics at their Thanksgiving meals. My brother and I have learned to not discuss politics — at the dinner table or anywhere, ever. That works for us and makes the rest of our families’ lives less stressful, too. Here are five suggestions that will keep the acrimony off the table this Thanksgiving for you:
- Reminisce about Thanksgiving dinners past. Remember how Grandma used to bake a dozen pies in anticipation of the big holiday? Remember how she baked marshmallows on the top of the sweet potatoes? Remember how she would roast a duck and a turkey because her dad (who had died before we were even born) hated turkey and that was their tradition? Remembering our loved ones and the wonderful things they did at Thanksgiving is not just a safe topic; it shows the spirit and grace of the holiday.
- Accept that mundane conversational questions are fine. Questions like: What have you heard from Uncle Dennis? What travel do you have planned this year? How has school been going? Just don’t ask people’s opinions and don’t offer your hot takes. It’s a family dinner, not Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table.
- Skip the tradition of going around the table and saying what you’re grateful for. This sounds counterintuitive, but expressing gratitude invites political statements. If a declaration is part of your tradition and you won’t let it go, set some limits around the statements. For instance, “In one word only, tell us what you’re thankful for this Thanksgiving.” However, just be prepared that someone’s word might be “wall” or “pantsuits.”
- Have a kind pre-dinner word with the usual offenders. Do you have a Thanksgiving provocateur who simply can’t help but pick a fight over politics? Is there someone whose goat can always be gotten when the presidential election is mentioned? Pull each of these people individually aside before the meal. Tell them kindly and candidly that discussions about politics make you uncomfortable and ask if they will please hold off until the holiday is over.
- Limit alcohol before and during the meal. Many of us like a glass of wine or two at Thanksgiving, but face it: the liquid courage often fuels political commentary. In the post-election fight I mentioned, my brother and I had both been on the Adkins diet, which meant (in our youthful interpretation) a lot of turkey, no stuffing or bread and plenty of hard alcohol. If you’re hosting, you can control the amount of alcohol offered. If someone shows up after having clearly imbibed (or brings a cooler filled with beer as one of my uncles used to do), offer him or her water and bread as an appetizer.
Some argue that our democracy depends on political discussion at the table, but for the sake of caring for your dinner guests and keeping the peace, please at least encourage civility and polite listening. And of course, no talking with your mouth full.