I’m looking forward to November 3rd. I’m ready for signs to go down, polling phone calls to end, and flyers to stop appearing in my mailbox, at my door, on my windshield. I’m ready to stop talking politics.
“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”
– Linus van Pelt, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Is there a place for politics in polite conversation? If the answer is no, then 99% of the conversations I’ve had recently aren’t polite. It’s unavoidable. I have smart friends; they’re informed and have opinions. I wouldn’t think they were so cool if that weren’t true. Does it matter that most of their opinions are different from mine? That question is slightly more difficult. Instead of finding out the answer I’ve been choosing political evasion: I laugh at jokes I don’t find funny or I suddenly become intensely interested in my menu, child, or the conversation on the other side of the table.
Politics turn otherwise polite people into something other than polite people. In my experience, politics transform people into one of the following categories, which surprisingly have never been mentioned on CNN or FOX News:
Political Pat’s: With these people you just never know. They could be conservative. They could be liberal. They aren’t putting signs on their lawns or engaging in political conversations. They’re not politically neutral but keep their opinions private. Unfortunately, Political Pats can appear to be apathetic.
Muhammad Ali’s: Once the bell rings, these politicos come out swinging. There’s no room for discussion in a boxing ring; political punches are thrown without situational awareness or sensitivity. Lately, it seems to me that more people than ever are wearing political boxing gloves.
Disinterested Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s: No, these people are not evil scientists. Yet, as Dr. Doofenshmirtz said, they “have an intense, burning indifference.” They may claim a political affiliation but it’s solely based on how their family or friends vote.
So, back to the original question: Is there a place for politics in polite conversation? It’s a trick question because the answer is irrelevant. You can’t tell friends, colleagues, bosses, or in-laws to stop discussing politics. We live in a politically-charged world and need to know how to gracefully discuss politics without becoming one of the people categorized above. We need tact.
“Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” – Isaac Newton
Tact does not require watered-down political beliefs. You should be able to unapologetically speak your opinions. The key is how to air those beliefs in social and business settings.
- Don’t make assumptions: You never know what others believe! Your political jokes or negative statements may unintentionally offend.
- Time and place: Take cues from the people around you. If you’re at a party and a political conversation is becoming heated it’s time to “agree to disagree” and change the subject.
- Don’t bring it up: I don’t think we can avoid political discussions but that doesn’t mean we need to start them. Particularly at work, the best course of action is to not have the conversation.
- Be honest but not negative: What if you’re asked for your opinion? Answer honestly! But avoid saying anything negative. You could say, “I voted for Bert because he supports some issues that are important to me.” You should not say, “I voted for Bert because he’s not a complete idiot like Ernie.”
- Actually listen: You may hear something that resonates with you or gain a greater understanding about what the other side believes.
- Always end on a positive: Even boxers shake hands at the end of a fight. When discussing politics, end the conversation well. A humorous comment can help smooth rough conversations.
- Know your hot topics: I feel too strongly about some issues to discuss them nicely with people who feel differently – these are my hot topics. Know your hot topics and discuss them with caution! Should you avoid your hot topics with friends? Maybe. Should you avoid them with your boss? Most definitely.
How will I be voting in November? As a Political Pat (a title that makes me want to put on heels and lipstick), I need to start honestly answering this question. For now, as Dr. Doofenshmirtz said, “I’m an imperceptible enigma.”