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How to navigate awkward political conversations at Thanksgiving dinner after a tense election

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/26/2020 N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY
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Many Americans will probably have a scaled-down or virtual Thanksgiving celebration amid the coronavirus pandemic, but a hectic year could still cause turkey dinners to turn tense.

Stress from COVID-19, health care, the economy, racism and the presidential election threatens people's mental health, according to the annual “Stress in America” survey from the American Psychological Association. Feeling overwhelmed is the primary reason people cite for being rude, which has the potential to ignite conflict, according to Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University and the author of "Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace."

"We’re coming to these relationships really depleted, and I think a lot of people are on edge," Porath said. "We’re much more inclined to behave in some of the negative ways and react with much greater disdain and impatience around people that think differently unfortunately."

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Amid a pandemic and a few weeks after a contentious presidential election that President Donald Trump has not conceded, how do you stop the chaos of 2020 from turning your holiday dinner into a disaster? 

Here are some tips to make sure politics doesn't turn Thanksgiving into an argument you're not-so-thankful for:

More tips: How to talk about Trump, politics with family over dinner

Avoid talking politics from the start

Nearly half (46%) of Americans try to avoid talking about politics during Thanksgiving celebrations, according to an Economist/YouGov survey in 2019. 

It's OK to set ground rules and request that your family not talk about politics or the pandemic over the holidays, etiquette expert Lizzie Post said.

“I might say, ‘This year, I've really decided for myself I’m not going to talk about these things, but I'd love to hear about the kids or what you’ve been doing at work,’” said Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of the institute's eponymous founder.

Porath noted that having Thanksgiving dinner virtually might lessen the chance of conflict.

"Hopefully, there's less chance of a huge negative spiral over Zoom," she said. "You can kind of quickly divert to somebody's cute child or a face that someone's making,"

Planning a Zoom Thanksgiving? Here's what you need to know

Remember the 'prime directive': Don't try to change someone's mind 

Though it may not be worth rehashing the specifics of the election, talking about issues that have been politicized such as mask-wearing may merit a discussion, Porath said 

"It could be potentially different if you feel like someone's safety is at risk," she said. "That might be a different time to kind of step out and have more courage."

Families are predictable, and if you know your uncle is going to bring up something controversial, prepare for that conversation emotionally ahead of time, said Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at University of Minnesota.

Don't approach the conversation by trying to change a family member's mind about something, said Doherty, who co-founded Braver Angels, a nonprofit group that runs workshops, debates and other events for people across the political spectrum. 

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"That's what we call the prime directive," he said. "Have instead a goal of understanding where the other person’s coming from, explain where you’re coming from and to see what comes out of that."

When responding to an opinion you disagree with, acknowledge the other person's point of view, Doherty suggested, agree with what you can, then give your own point of view. Instead of bringing a long list of facts, tell stories that convey your point, he recommended.

"When people have strongly held views they interpret facts that support their views and discount facts or information that contradict their views," he said. "I’m not saying don't bring facts into the conversation, but don’t assume that they are just going to carry the day."

What do I do if things get heated?

All three experts said that if things escalate, the best course of action is to exit the conversation. 

Doherty said it's important to remember that you are responsible for keeping your own emotions in check. He recommended acknowledging that you probably won't agree and trying to move the conversation forward.

If the person still wants to argue and you have to declare the conversation over, he said, "the key to exiting is to do it without criticizing the other person."

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Post said it's important to stay calm and keep the volume and speed of the conversation in check. She said to look for signs that others may be uncomfortable with the conversation and try to end the discussion.

"Just like any in-person conversation you can try to redirect, you could try to listen," Post said. "You could exit the conversation ... but I think at least saying, ‘You know what, I’ve gotta get going, but take care’ is always an acceptable out."

Porath said it can help to remember that Thanksgiving is about gratitude and that your family are the people you love most.

"You want to end up with the same healthy relationship as when you started the conversation," she said.

What if someone says something problematic?

There's a difference between heated political commentary and hate speech or opinions rooted in bias.

Doherty recommended exiting the conversation if someone uses hate speech or racial epithets but warned against "calling out" family members on opinions about politics, policy, gender or race that are different but not inflammatory. 

“It's rarely helpful to label what the other person said as ‘that’s racist, that's sexist that's xenophobic’ or on the red side, ‘that’s anti-American, that's socialist, that's anti-Christian,’” he said. “If I can’t tolerate your view without condemning it and you, I think our democracy really starts to suffer, and family relationships really start to suffer as well.”

Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to navigate awkward political conversations at Thanksgiving dinner after a tense election

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