Health & Medicine

Dreading the holiday dinner conversation? How to keep politics off the Thanksgiving plate

Pass the gravy, hold the politics. This year, perhaps unlike any Thanksgiving in recent memory, there’s likely to be a big dollop of tension served up with the mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

For some families, with partisan emotions still raw after the Nov. 8 presidential election, it can be a tough time to sit down peaceably to dinner.

There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence on social media, in the workplace and in households nationwide about the impact of our political schisms. Friends have unfriended one another on Facebook. Some siblings aren’t speaking. Rather than stomach the expected red-state, blue-state brawl across the dining table, one Sacramento couple canceled plans to host the family Thanksgiving dinner.

Midtown Sacramento therapist Kathleen Oravec, who’s getting more holiday calls than usual from anxious clients, said she’s never seen anything like it.

“The election is over but there’s anxiety about the unknown. That can be very anxiety-provoking to people,” said Oravec.

Some have suggested that “the only way to understand each other is to have discourse and talk about our differences,” she said. “But at a Thanksgiving dinner so soon after the election, it’s probably not a good idea for most families.”

Every family or friend group is different. Some welcome a lively debate. Or politics can be discussed on less rancorous terms, such as what did you find positive about your candidate? What was the primary campaign issue that motivated you to cast your vote? Or not vote.

While some can manage it, even a civilized conversation can unexpectedly erupt into the verbal equivalent of a food fight.

When a Bee reporter asked friends and readers for tips on how to maintain civilized conversations around the Thanksgiving table, the suggestions flowed like a melting Jell-O salad.

“If yours is like my family, it won’t matter,” said Jeff Raimundo, retired Sacramento political consultant, in a Facebook post. “We’ll argue over whether cranberry sauce should be left in the shape of a can when it’s served … or whether it should be made from scratch; whether Kanye (West, the rapper) has any talent or whether the dealth penalty is (an) existential threat to humanity. There will be arguments whether we like it or not. So we might as well not shy away from this one, either. It’s too important to each of us.”

For some families who aren’t in unanimity, however, it may be best to set a no-politics rule.

“Be in the moment,” Oravec said. “Talk about the food. Pick a song you liked this month and play it. Talk about a favorite film or book.”

After the election, Alexandra Harrigan, a 22-year-old junior at California State University, Sacramento, said she and her sorority sisters took a vow to set aside their politics in the interest of saving their friendships. “Everything was so extreme with the election,” said the San Clemente resident, whose family is visiting her in Sacramento for the holidays. “We liked each other before the election, before we knew what each other’s politics were,” so they decided to not post political opinions on their social media pages.

Guille Gonzalez, manager at Bagel Time cafe in downtown Sacramento, said, “It’s better to leave (politics) at the door. Just be with each other and be grateful instead of being angry.”

Etiquette expert Daniel Post Snelling, the great-great-grandson of manners maven Emily Post and the author of “Manners in a Digital World,” said managing the holiday dinner table discussion is “traditional etiquette territory,” but never more than this year.

He said the vast majority of calls and emails to Burlington, Vt.-based this week are about how to keep the political peace at the holiday table.

“It’s only natural that this question is really present for people … ‘I’m worried I don’t know how to handle it; I don’t know if I can take it this year,’ ” he said.

To help everyone cope, is hosting a live holiday etiquette hotline, 855-469-8225, until 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 23, and from 6 to 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day. “There are some people who just know this is too raw for them personally, just to get through a political discussion and not feel hurt or attacked. They have very strong feelings about this one,” Snelling said.

If that’s you, he said, it’s OK to do a little work ahead of time. Talk to your host about how you’re feeling and that you’d appreciate staying away from political topics this year. Or if you want to dig into a discussion with a favorite uncle, do it when everyone else is watching football. “Don’t subject a captive audience to your political debate,” said Snelling.

Another tip: When a political conversation is particularly raw or intense, look to sportsmanship. “Be a good winner and a good loser. Gloating is inappropriate. Taking pleasure in someone else’s loss is inappropriate. There also are lessons to be learned from losing well, keeping your chin up and not pouting or sulking,” he said.

Stick to non-threatening, mutual topics (sports, pop culture, weather, holiday memories, family and kids). If things start getting heated, change the subject (compliment the food; ask about the perils of Black Friday shopping). Don’t take the bait. Rather than engaging with a cousin’s barbs, smile and deflect. If you’re the one who drops a political bomb at the table and gets a stunned response, acknowledge your mistake, which can be a way to start building family bridges, Snelling said.

Rebekah Kurtz-Noble, a Fair Oaks hair salon owner, grew up with a Democrat mom and a Republican dad, so mixed politics aren’t anything unusual. “Some of the people I love most in life don’t have the same views, and that’s OK,” she said, while coloring a client’s hair on Tuesday. The 33-year-old is hosting her family’s gathering this year and knows that not everyone is happy with the election results. “There’ll probably be a few comments and I may have to say, ‘Hey, let’s keep it neutral.’ … The last thing you want to do is offend someone you love.”

In a series of Facebook posts to a Sacramento Bee reporter, the strategies for handling holiday discourse ranged from humorous to practical. One suggestion: “Duct tape for all.” Another posted a clip-out sign to wear to the table: “I do not want to talk about the election. Please pass the wine.”

Sacramento attorney Nancy Miller is putting her grandkids in charge of the adults. “Their rule is anyone who talks ‘politics mean’ gets sent to the ‘kiddie’ table,” she wrote.

Money could be a civilizing influence, suggests Donna Bridewell, a retired Sacramento Bee copy desk editor. “Anyone who makes a political comment has to put a dollar in a jar. Repeat at Christmas. Repeat at New Year’s.” All the accumulated dollars, she said, would either go to a nonprofit (nonpolitical, of course) or be split among family members who manage to keep mum about politics.

Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State, has a practical recipe to mute the vitriol on Thanksgiving Day. Play Mexican train (dominoes) before the meal, set a “no politics rule” for dinner, followed by a Hallmark channel movie. Monitor alcohol and serve “lots of dessert so all are in a food coma.”

Before the presidential election, the American Psychological Association offered advice that still may hold true for those stressed out by the results: “Limit your media consumption. Read just enough to stay informed. Turn off the news feed or take a digital break. Take some time for yourself, go for a walk, or spend time with friends and family doing things that you enjoy.”

Or stick your fork into another slice of pumpkin pie.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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