Earlier this year, a pair of researchers discovered a startling fact: Since the 2016 election, Thanksgiving dinners have gotten almost an hour shorter. Why? Because of political differences.
In the paper, titled “The Effect of Partisanship and Political Advertising on Close Families Ties,” UCLA behavioral economist Keith Chen and Washington State University Ph.D. student Ryne Rohla analyzed smartphone-location data to measure travel during the holiday for over 10 million Americans; they combined this data with a precinct-level database to derive presidential voting patterns. They found that people were becoming less likely to travel across the borders of red and blue districts.
In other words, political polarization is literally reducing the amount of time Americans spend with their loved ones. What’s driving this antagonism? Chen and Rohla looked to political advertising as one possible answer.
When researchers at the University of Maryland’s Political Advertising Research Center analyzed the emotional content of the almost $7 billion in campaign ads run by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s campaigns, they discovered that fear and anger dominated the messaging on both sides. Ten out of the seventeen ads run by the Trump campaign were coded as featuring fear or anger—but so were 14 of the 15 ads run by the Democratic-aligned Super PAC Priorities USA Action.
In fact, Chen and Rohla found that cross-partisan dinners shortened by 2.6 minutes on average for every thousand political ads aired in the traveler’s media market, suggesting that political advertising (or the factors associated with it) were making matters worse. They conclude that 34 million person-hours of cross-partisan discourse were eliminated in 2016 due to these partisan effects.
What is it about discussing politics that causes us so much anxiety, enough that even our annual Thanksgiving dinners are being curtailed by partisan rancor? And what can we do to have better conversations about some of our most deeply held beliefs?
For some answers, we reached out to a wide range of academics, mediators, and others who study political conflict. Suzanne Degges-White—the chair of Northern Illinois University’s Counseling, Adult and Higher Education Department—says that the key is to stay positive and foster a discussion based on understanding the other person, rather than trying to put them down for their point of view.
“When you stumble onto a topic that has a hair-trigger feel, invite your family member to help you better understand their point of view—ask questions, be curious, be open to hearing how your family member sees the world,” she says.
Why family is frustrating
Degges-White says that disagreements are particularly vexing within families because we expect for them to be on our side. At root, our anxieties are about conflicting group memberships.
In an email, she compares our commitments to our political beliefs to our commitments to a favorite professional sports team:
In terms of professional football, for instance, whether we pull for the Los Angeles Rams or the Chicago Bears, many of us are going to be loyal even when our team has a losing season, and when they are playing an “arch rival,” we become highly energized and invested in the game’s outcome. With politics, we also align ourselves with a particular side, and we lose our ability to perceive the competition/political rival through a clear and balanced perspective. We care more about “our side” winning than about learning about the other side’s standpoints.
Indeed, recent research by University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason has shown that political polarization is driven more by strong ideological identification—identifying with a team—than where you actually stand on the issues themselves.
Degges-White says that discussing political disagreements with family members can be particularly polarizing. In politics—unlike with football—our decisions can affect the economic, physical, or emotional well-being of ourselves and others. With family, “we make implicit assumptions that we are more ‘like them’ than not.” When differences emerge, that can generate more “cognitive dissonance” than it might with a stranger or an acquaintance. When we feel like a member of our own group is threatening our well-being in some way, it’s natural to feel anxiety.
“We all need to experience a sense of belonging with others and when we feel that our families do not understand or agree with our perspective, it can be emotionally distressing,” she says. “We may try even harder to convince family members to share our own beliefs than we would with acquaintances or strangers with whom we do not expect to have frequent or close interactions.”
“We all need to experience a sense of belonging with others and when we feel that our families do not understand or agree with our perspective, it can be emotionally distressing.”
Graham Hall, a linguistics professor at Northumbria University in Newcastle in the United Kingdom, who has written about the challenge of talking politics with your family, offers a similar theory as to why arguments with relatives can be even more intense than ones with friends.
“Maybe it boils down to the idea that we can choose our friends but not our family, and perhaps we tend to choose our friends because of shared values,” he says in an email. “We can also ‘drop’ friends in a way which we can’t with family.”
How to sit at the same table
There are a number of organizations that are trying to bring families and communities back together again, across differences.
Better Angels, which was founded during 2016’s presidential campaign, works to promote civic dialogue between competing political factions in America. They put together a guide on some best practices for engaging in civil dinner table conversations, including:
- One-on-one conversations, rather than group discussions.
- Find something in common with your potential political opposite. Try to understand the other person’s viewpoint and then first respond with a distillation of their ideas: “I think you’re saying that…Am I getting that right?”
- Don’t raise your voice or get agitated.
- Avoid asking gotcha questions that lead to attacks rather than lines of dialogue.
- Don’t assign negative motives over disagreements, and avoid using labels to categorize the other side—such as “racist” or the (pejorative form) of “socialist.”
Kenneth Cloke, who has worked as a mediator and arbitrator for decades and is the author of a forthcoming book on discussing controversial issues, argues that it’s important to think about politics as problem-solving.
“We have slipped into a way of talking about politics and conducting politics that is unnecessarily divisive,” he says. “So, if you think about what politics actually is, you can define it as consisting of two separate and entirely different things. The first is just a form of social problem-solving. If it’s just social problem-solving, it’s not much conflict. And the conflict there is constructive and useful.”
The problem is when we start to think about politics as segregating people into the righteous and the wrong. “Then it’s a form of domination,” he says. “That is, one side being right and the other side being wrong and there isn’t any perceived option that would allow people to discover what is right in both people’s perspective and what is wrong.”
In the vein of searching for solutions, Degges-White suggests avoiding personally criticizing family members during political discussions.
“Criticize political actions or legislative issues, don’t criticize the family member who supports them,” she says. “Don’t belittle family members whose beliefs don’t match your own—this can create lasting grudges and hurt feelings that can mar family gatherings for years.”
If you’re at the dinner table and a family member starts probing you on a controversial issue, Cloke suggests that it’s best to ask questions and start a conversation instead of just making a declaratory statement.
“See if you can get people to expand on what they think, to talk a little bit about the values they have and how their views are informed by values, and to then have a conversation that allows people to see that a lot of times values are held in common,” he says.
Treat family like strangers
In an article Hall wrote on discussing politics with family earlier this year, he offers some unorthodox advice: Treat your family like strangers. We tend to be more likely to interrupt a close family member, or be very direct or blunt with them in a way we wouldn’t be with a stranger in a grocery store or on the street. That extra time we take to consider how we approach people we don’t know could pay dividends when responding to the controversial opinions of a loved one.
While practicing civility in our political conversations, particularly with those we hold dear, is important, anyone who is passionate about their political beliefs will also want to be persuasive in their arguments.
The problem is, many Americans don’t know how to persuade. Our political conversations often revolve around enthusiastically proclaiming our own beliefs, while questioning the motivations and morality of our opponents. But research shows this isn’t how you change the minds of people with strong convictions.
In 2015, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer and social psychologist Matthew Feinberg published a study that looked into how liberals and conservatives try to persuade their ideological opposites.
Willer and Feinberg’s research found that conservatives were far more likely to support same-sex marriage if they were read an argument that emphasized conservative values like patriotism; the message in this case was that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans,” who “contribute to the American economy and society.” Reading them a liberal message that emphasized equality was much less likely to make them supportive of same-sex marriage.
In another component of the study, they asked liberal participants to try to convince conservatives to support same-sex marriage.
They found that only nine percent of liberals made arguments that appealed to conservative notions of morality such as patriotism and group loyalty, while 69 percent made arguments based on liberal values such as equality.
Conservatives didn’t do any better in a portion of the study where they were asked to try to convince liberals to support making English as the official language of the United States. Eight percent of conservatives appealed to liberal values while making their argument, while 59 percent tapped into conservative values.
In other words, people are far more likely to change their minds if you appeal to their deeply held values, rather than when you try to get them to change their position by foisting your own deeply held values onto them…but most people don’t know that.
Of course, it’s quite difficult—and perhaps even disingenuous—to argue from values you don’t hold. The important point here is to communicate to the other side that you see and understand their values. It’s an exercise in empathy—but it’s also requires intellectual effort. At Thanksgiving dinner, imagine the sort of worldview and values they have, and explain how your position can fit into that.
Make dinner for everyone
Lennon Flowers is the executive director of an organization called The Dinner Party, which works to bring together young adults who’ve experienced loss.
In early 2017, her organization came together with the interfaith group Faith Matters Network and the anti-harassment nonprofit Hollaback! to apply that same principle to the growing divisions in the country. They wanted to repair the deep breaches that had opened up during the past year’s elections, and bring together Americans from all walks of life to sit together at the table and connect on a personal level. Flowers and the other activists decided to call for Americans to host 100 dinners during the first 100 days of the administration.
The project was a success, as they easily met and exceeded their goal of a hundred dinners. They realized that there was an ongoing demand to address the issue of social polarization, so they founded the People’s Supper project, which has hosted over 1,300 dinners in more than 120 cities and towns.
During the suppers, participants are encouraged to build bridges across all sorts of divides, not just political ones. “We’ve engaged a lot of conversations around racial healing, bridge-building work, generational segregation seems to be a big one, so a lot of conversations that we have historically been extraordinarily good at avoiding,” Flowers says.
The organization provides guidebooks to participants which give them a template upon which to build the dinners. The book advises organizers to arrange dinners with small tables no larger than six to ten people that allow for intimate conversations. The ground rules are based on promoting “brave and engaging conversation,” where diners are honest but not judgmental; the first rule is to speak in “I” statements but avoid giving advice to others. The “purpose of this dinner is to have dialogue that is not persuasive, but rather connects us to one another through the sharing of personal stories,” the book notes.
Participants are given a set of possible discussion questions, which include asking fellow diners about a moment in which they’ve felt unwelcome or misunderstood, or to name something they have in common with someone they don’t get along with. They key is to humanize the other people, rather than reduce them to their political parties.
“For us, the starting place is to not talk about politics,” Flowers says. “So often our conversations are limited to our positions, rather than our stories, rather than who we are.” The guidebook quotes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who writes, “If you really want to open your mind, open your heart first. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the ‘other’ group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light.”
Lyla Kohistany hosted a table at a People’s Supper dinner a week before the midterm elections in Washington, D.C. The gathering brought together a diverse group of individuals across racial, gender, geographic, and political lines.
“We started off by asking everyone at the table to tell us the story of their names, it was a wonderful way to bring in different cultural nuances of why people were given certain names by their parents,” she says.
At the end of the dinner, many participants shared email addresses and they have stayed friends. Bringing people together by sharing personal stories allowed the diverse group to connect in a way that may not have been possible if they had all simply started from their political positions. So perhaps the secret to a successful Thanksgiving dinner with your family is to simply start with what you share in common—and hold the politics for dessert.