Trumpkin Pie: Surviving Your 2020 Family Holiday Dinner

Posted on November 24, 2020

For some, part of the admittedly very small sliver that is the silver lining of the Covid quarantine is being able to avoid the dreaded political conversation that often erupts at Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s no secret that our country is more politically divided that it has been since the Civil War. The fear of political arguments with family, if that family includes members of the opposite political party, has been so widely written about that it has become a trope. While there have always been political disagreements at social functions (otherwise, the old adage about never talking politics or religion at the dinner table would not exist) we are experiencing a relatively new, increasingly intense ideological polarization. Everyone is on the defense, ever alert for differences instead of commonalities. While finding common ground should be easier within families, because of shared personal history, unfortunately the 24/7 media cycle, social media, and the continual erosion of fact-based reality have polarized the country’s belief systems and are causing a rift between us that is getting wider than the Grand Canyon.

Why does it hurt so much when a family member seems to have “drunk the Kool-Aid?” For one thing it can be disturbing when relatives you’ve been raised with have a completely different way of seeing things. Because they are, in some sense, a part of you, it can seem as though the body snatchers have replaced your family members with pod people. The growing political “us versus them” feeling feels worse when it comes directly into conflict with your family identity.

Most people have a simple solution: They decide they absolutely won’t discuss politics when they know their relatives are on the opposite side. However, no matter what your intention is when you walk through the door, this is not always possible, because these days any and all conversations can lead to politics. Obviously, for safety reasons, this year a lot of people are not getting together in person with their relatives. But remember: Even video chats can quickly devolve into vitriolic chats.

Here are a few quick tips for your face-to-face or virtual holiday get-together with opposite-party relatives.

1) Commit ahead of time to curbing your alcohol consumption
This may seem counterintuitive. Your first thought may be that you need to drink more heavily than you ordinarily do, in order to get more relaxed, to get through the ordeal. The problem is, the main effect of alcohol consumption is that it lowers inhibitions. As in, impulse control. So while you might normally say, “That doesn’t sound quite correct,” after a few martinis you might say, “Are you completely INSANE?!”

2) Positive memory sharing
Almost everyone has at least a few wonderful memories of family–memories they cherish. When you sense the conversation hitting the skids, try to bring up one of these memories as quickly as you can. If the celebration is in your own home, you can suggest playing old videos or sharing childhood photos of fun vacations. This will help keep things in the love mode, which is where you want them.

3) Ask for help or advice instead of discussing beliefs
Let’s say you’re the middle of dinner, and you’re happily talking to your nephew about relocating to a new area. Suddenly your father-in-law barks at you, “So you’re moving to that (town full of white supremacists /city full of communists)?” You don’t have to take the bait. Instead, you can quickly switch to advice-asking mode. “Yes, I’m moving in next week,” you might say. “By the way, do you know anything about moving a piano? My mover won’t do it.” You can ask your brother’s husband about buying a new computer, ask your mother about recipes, ask your father about gardening. Everyone likes feeling needed.

4) Utilize the family pet
While you can’t count on a household pet always being available at the perfect moment, a pet really is like a magic wand or a secret weapon. When things get heated, interject, “Where did that cat Spooky get to?” Or, “Hey, where’s my cutie-pie little doggie?” Or, “What the heck is that crazy Buddy doing?” Look for the dog, praise the dog, ask after the dog’s health. Get the dog to do tricks. And if things are really bad, go out and walk the dog.

5) Divide and conquer (or at least contain)
When you DO feel like having a meaningful conversation about an issue with a family member, it’s best not to try it at the dinner table, with everyone else watching and listening. Often if you can get this person away from the group and have a quiet moment together–whether it’s going out to get wood, going to the store for supplies, or sneaking out to have a beer–guards will be down. Separating from the pack is a good way to lower the stakes, and bond.

6) Teach by doing. Set an example of good behavior
I can’t tell you how effective it is to simply behave as you want others to behave. It’s a cliché because it’s true. If you have the fortitude to change your behavior, it will cause others to follow suit. Maybe not instantly, but over time. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: No matter what anyone else does, you will show respect, even when the other one doesn’t. Here are your basic tenets:

–Communicate, don’t attack.
–Talk about the issues; don’t talk about particular politicians.
–Be curious about what other people think, even though after countless Thanksgivings, you’re convinced you already know what they think.
–Never show contempt.
–Be grateful. Gratitude is powerful. It can transform situations. Thank your unlike-minded relative for anything you can think of: for making your bed up, for building a fire, for making the dessert, for complimenting your hair.
–Forgive. Learning to forgive is like learning a martial art–you have to practice it to get better and stronger at it. Within families, it can be essential for your future happiness. Forgiveness is an essential part of wisdom.

7) When all else fails, resort to technical difficulties
On Zoom, say, “We’re running out of time, gotta go.” Or “I’m losing my signal.” (When it’s really, “I’m losing my sanity!”) And if you are in a face-to-face danger zone this holiday, escape to your sleeping area, or go to the bathroom and never come back.

“Fell asleep,” you can say the next day. “Must have been that turkey and wine thing everyone is always talking about.”

Email:   |  Follow Miss Mingle: spacer-8px facebook_square_30 spacer-8px twitter_square_30 spacer-8px