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Unsolicited Advice: Six Rules for Peace at the Thanksgiving Table

Thanksgiving is an official federal holiday designed to give Americans one day to corporately recognize all of our blessings and the good things in our lives as residents of this nation. It is a reminder to take a few moments of peace in the chaos, to take a deep breath in and simply rest in one corporate emotion – gratefulness.

So it’s a bit ironic that Thanksgiving has become a family-gathering holiday that many Americans dread, especially these days. My social media timelines are filled with people complaining about the impending doom of dinner around the Thanksgiving table. When humans gather, it is inevitable that discussion and debate will arise. After all, communication is a hallmark of the human form. Politics have long been a thorn in the side of families filled with people of different ideologies who just want to find a way to enjoy the presence of one another, if only for a few hours.

However, these days seem especially precarious when it comes to family events like Thanksgiving. We thought it was bad when Trump was elected, but discourse has become shockingly worse (unimaginably so) with COVID sensitivities layered on top. There are so many people willing to disown each other over what is most definitely a debatable issue. It’s truly tragic.

A very popular question I get around this time of year from my conservative readers is this:

How do I get through the holiday without political conflict with my uber-progressive, angry, self-righteous daughter/in-laws/cousins, etc.?

It’s amazing how many people fear these conversations. Sad, really. It’s indicative of the hardening of the hearts of so many on the left. We on the right think that they are wrong, but they think we are evil. It’s hardly an even playing field. However, I do have some tips on ways to make the Thanksgiving table a bit more peaceful this year.

1)List the rules. This isn’t necessarily everyone’s jam. After all your home is not an elementary school classroom. Adults shouldn’t need to be reminded how to behave, but it’s 2021…sadly many do. So, don’t feel shy about posting a light-hearted set of rules at the entrance to your home if you know you have family and friends who love to ignore the rules of polite society. Everyone who enters your home is making a tacit agreement to follow the rules for just a few hours of their lives. There’s nothing wrong with a little reminder that you can point back to when things get out of hand, and it can even relieve your guests of their self-imposed responsibility to “speak truth to power” by giving them an excuse to simmer down.

2)Rearrange the table placements. In my house everyone sits where they want, but some people prefer to have place assignments and that’s perfectly fine. Try making seat neighbors of those who aren’t well-acquainted with each other. They’ll be forced to spend most of the dinner making small talk. Placing liberal Uncle Ken next to conservative cousin Sherri could give them more license to be rude to each other. Familiarity breeds contempt.

3)Put some boundaries on the alcohol. A tough one, I know. But if there is tension in a house, where drinks go, arguments often follow. If you have small kids, maybe you can use them as an excuse to limit drinking to one part of the house (an office or game room or maybe the front deck). By making the “drinking space” a place people have to get to, you create an instant sense of camaraderie amongst your drinkers and non-drinkers alike (think of how it feels to be the only two smokers at a party, or the only two non-smokers. Suddenly you are allies) and you encourage an unspoken boundary between drink-talking and table-talking. It’s a little thing but it could help diffuse tension for a few hours by creating space for people to take breaks from each other. Or perhaps you have some other rules about alcohol like no drinking until after dinner. Customize it to your needs, but don’t be too rigid. You don’t want people to feel unwelcome, but small, seemingly innocuous boundaries can make all the difference.

4)Simply refuse to engage. I know this is so difficult, because people are wrong and when people are wrong it is important for you to correct them. I have the most trouble with this one. My job puts me in front of a lot of information the average American (and certainly most people in my family group) has no idea about. To hear people spouting ignorant talking points I can easily refute is very frustrating. But sometimes a strategy I use at family gatherings is to simply practice saying different versions of, “I promised myself no politics today.” It’s easier for me, as I can use my job as an excuse (“Sorry, Barb! I’m off the clock today!”), but you’ll need to come up with your own. Pick a phrase, memorize it, and repeat it. “Sorry, my husband made me swear no politics!” or “Sorry, I just wanted to focus on food and fun today” or say nothing at all. Just let the other person talk and rage and say nothing. When you’re asked to respond just say, “Oh, I’m just here to listen.” The fun part about that is most of your liberal friends will hate that one. Just keep saying it. They’ll shut up after a bit. Trust me on this one.

5)Make a party game out of it. Ask everyone to come with a roll of quarters or a handful of change. Every time someone talks politics they have to put some money in the “Shut Up” jar. The person with the most money left at the end of the night wins the bounty.

6.Engage graciously. If all else fails, be willing to discuss the third rail topics but decide ahead of time that you will not be dragged into angry arguments or personal attacks. Remain curious and when your discussion partner begins getting out of hand, ask questions. Keep asking questions, not out of sarcasm but genuine curiosity. I find that diffuses a lot of tension. And find common ground. Take opportunities to redirect the conversation into that common ground.

It sucks that at a time when we are meant to be enjoying each other the most, we often end up dreading the company of those people the most. But contentment is a choice, and you can choose to ignore the tension or take steps to diffuse the tension so you can have the most productive time possible with your family. Even for all the fighting, bickering and silliness, these are the people God has given to you to call family, and what you share together is a secret that no other family can emulate.

Be grateful.