Like a full gravy boat knocked over on an heirloom tablecloth, the fallout and spillover from the nastiest presidential election in U.S. history is set to spoil a lot of Thanksgiving dinners around the country.
And many of those food fights will carry over into December and result in quickly revised Christmas plans, canceled visits, or invitations revoked.
Writes Theunis Bates, managing editor of The Week magazine, “All over the U.S., friends and relatives who found themselves on opposite sides of the political divide are now wondering if they can sit across the table from one another and talk turkey.”
For months escalating personal posts on Facebook that commented about a favored or reviled candidate have often included an implicit (or even explicit) judgment about ignorant friends and/or family members who could intelligently or morally support an evil candidate like X or Y. The implied message is that unless you agree with me on this obvious choice then you don’t have a brain, a heart, a conscience or all three.
So I have some recommendations for making a holiday gathering that is supposed to be about not just gratitude but unity (as reflected in the first Thanksgiving being a potluck dinner with pilgrims and Indians).
If you are the host
If you are the host for Thanksgiving dinner, you might consider sending out a friendly, even playful, e-mail or text to your guests announcing that the home and table will be a Politics-Free Zone and that any violators will be sent to the children’s table and be served boiled hot dogs and macaroni & cheese. You may have to remind your spouse of the rules. The host family models the expectations for guests.
You can put up a friendly sign on the front door that says “Happy Thanksgiving! You Are Entering a Politics-Free Zone.”
What do I do if someone does start in on politics? Just give a quick and friendly reminder of the PFZ. Put a toy sheriff’s badge on your sweater and point at it with a smile and “ahem.” Because you can’t be everywhere in the house you might deputize another family member or guest. Yes, Andy and Barney are in charge of Thanksgiving this year.
But what if that doesn’t stop someone? Like a basketball or football referee you cannot allow the game to get out of hand. And as a host, you are 1) in charge and 2) have the responsibility of protecting your guests.
Plus, as the host you have likely done the bulk of the work for this occasion so let your attitude be, “I’ve busted my butt to make this day special and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Uncle Frank or my sister Shelly ruin it!” By the way, don’t say that out loud. Just feel it and enforce it gently. And have your deputy back you up on it.
But what if my guest are all in political agreement? While there is certainly less risk of a tabletop war in that case, you have to decide if you are willing for politics to dominate the dinner discussion.
If you are the guest
As a guest you have to allow the host to set the boundaries for the gathering. Be careful not to overstep that boundary by announcing that you are hereby declaring this home to be a PFZ. At most you can mention the idea aloud in a casual and friendly manner, and if the host publicly affirms the idea then you leave the responsibility of reminder and enforcement to her.
Whether or not the host declares the home to be a PFZ, what do I do if someone says something offensive either in general or to another guest? While you may have to bite your tongue almost in half, I’d recommend staying silent and allowing the hosts to intervene. Even with the right intention of protecting someone from a bully, you risk jumping in too quickly or too aggressively. This is how barroom brawls in movies start.
What if the offensive remark is subtly or not so subtly directed at me? Again, you can always stitch your tongue back together later, but I don’t recommend a verbal retaliation. No, you should not accept being insulted and abused, but a factor in how you should respond is the fact that others are present for what it is supposed to be an enjoyable occasion for everyone. How you respond publicly to Aunt Ruth should differ from how you might respond to her in private.
Can you recall Clint Eastwood ever yelling? I can’t either. In his movies Eastwood is usually a man of few words, quiet strength, and a glare that can melt iron and steel.
“Yes, Ramon, but then he usually punches or shoots the bad guy.”
Right, and I highly recommend you not doing that. Stick with the glare. A fire needs kindling wood to keep burning so don’t supply it with your response. Others will likely intervene to defend you and/or the host should step in to remind everyone of the rules of the PFZ.
Note: these suggestions may also apply to Christmas gatherings when considering not only conversation but gift-giving. Maybe giving Ed a roll of Trump toilet paper or a Hillary voodoo doll to Catherine isn’t a good idea this year.
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.LifeChangeCS.org) and the author of several books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.