There will be delicious food, one too many slices of pumpkin pie, gift exchanges, and maybe some fun activities like card games and holiday movies. Everything is all fun and games -- until someone takes a hammer to the holiday chandelier with an off-hand, politically charged comment.
If your family suffers from a good old-fashioned case of political polarization, you should expect to find yourself in this uncomfortable situation every year. Sometimes the offender will dangle a controversial statement as bait to see who will bite and engage in a one-sided argument. Other times it's genuinely an innocent remark that ignites a fire under an unsuspecting family member at the kitchen table. Either way, it's often the holiday party's swan song, as heated debates, screaming matches, and slammed doors usually follow.
Unfortunately, given the state of 2020 thus far, it looks like we're going to be in for the biggest verbal food fight of all this holiday season.
Even the most optimistic Thanksgiving dinner attendants will admit to feeling terrified to sleep on a powder keg this Christmas. Others will spend days leading up to the holiday season crossing their fingers that the CDC will issue a full travel ban: the perfect excuse to shelter in place and avoid those political guns ablaze.
Whether you fall into one camp or migrate between the two, you're not the only person on this boat that appears to be speeding towards a waterfall. In the interest of helping other anxiety-riddled souls out there prepare for the holidays, you'll want to review this quick list of tips to avoid these dreaded situations altogether or deal with them when they come knocking.
Ease up on the alcohol
Alcohol tends to bring down walls to the point that people feel comfortable saying things they usually wouldn't in polite society. Toss back a few too many, and you know what happens next.
While you may hesitate to turn down offers of spiked egg nog in fear of becoming the party-pooper that insists on an entirely sober holiday, there's no shame in putting a cap on your holiday alcohol intake. Remember, going cold turkey isn't your only option -- after all, most of us couldn't survive the holidays without a little liquid courage. But the fact of the matter is, you could avoid many of these dreaded political conversations if everyone keeps their drinking light.
Have some transitional topics up your sleeve
Another way to head off uncomfortable conversations is to arrive at the party with some good conversation-starters in your pocket. Browse the news headlines for current events that aren't so polarizing, or find articles in magazines that people at the party would find interesting. Forward these stories and articles to your friends and family ahead of time. Then, when someone tries to dip their toe in the no-man's-land of American politics, simply bring up the story that you sent over and transition to that.
If you don't have time to prepare transitional topics ahead of time, remember that people love to talk about themselves. So when Uncle Tom starts to gripe about the 2020 election, ask him to tell you about his recent vacation or anything that gives him the chance to brag a little. Nobody can resist an invitation to rant and rave about their successes, new hobbies, or topics that have recently piqued their interest.
Try to see the issue from their perspective
Sometimes, all the world preparation still can't prevent these conversations from pushing their way to the table, and that's ok. When that happens, empathy is often the best way to diffuse tensions.
For example, if your family is on the far right side of the gun-rights conversation --and you can guarantee more than half the men around the dinner table are carrying -- do your best to thrive as the left-leaning lone wolf. How can you avoid feeling like the black sheep pushed to the outskirts of your family unit? Find unifying common ground.
Let's say you enjoy shooting and own a Taurus G2C 9mm that you keep safe under your bed for home protection, but you also believe that mass shootings in the United States are a problem that needs to be addressed. Focus on your commonalities and propose a trip to the shooting range post-holiday season.
While you may feel strongly about the gun control conversation, you should seek to understand why members of your family are even more passionate about the subject. Many of them may have served in the US Military, where guns are an integral part of everyday life. Others may view the right to bear arms as a uniquely American right that's just as important as the right to vote and exercise free speech.
Even if you don't see eye to eye on the issue, it helps keep conversations (relatively) civil by viewing the problem from their side of the table. Of course, you can hope that your right-leaning family members show you the same courtesy.
Fight back with genuine questions, not a war of words
While you may be reluctant to use the word 'fight," you might find yourself in the thick of it. Loved ones hurl insults, tempers rage, and there's no way out of the dogfight but forward.
If you've found yourself in sticky situations like these on more than one occasion, you can leave the debate on decent terms by embracing the Socratic approach and question everything. Instead of fighting back with angry words or researched statistics that prove your point, ask penetrating questions that force the other party to think about the issue from another angle.
Two outcomes are possible in this scenario. In the best-case scenario, you'll manage to convince the opposing party that there are more ways to see the issue and introduce more empathy to the conversation. You may not change their mind, but at least it de-escalates the argument and becomes far more civil.
More often than not, though, asking questions just gives the other party a chance to let off some steam and leave the conversation. Instead of upping the rhetoric, be sure to ask thought-provoking questions that relieve tension and make it, so you're no longer on the defensive.
While these four tips aren't earth-shattering psychological strategies, you'll find that they work more often than not. You can't avoid every holiday-ending explosive conversation, but hopefully, applying one or more of these tips helps make your holiday a little more enjoyable.