16

Live in the United States where my family (on all sides) are extremely polarized. Often at family gatherings (holiday, birthday, etc.) family discusses their political views in strong terms. This happens for both in-laws as well as blood family. Extracting myself from conflict from conversations is difficult. This doesn't have any bearing to the actual political leaning as some family is strongly liberal, and others strongly conservative.

Example 1: At family reunion. Say hello to a family member that I have not seen for > 10 years. After hugging and saying hello, the family member makes strong politically charged question as first words "So you think we should drill!"

Example 2: Birthday party at In-laws. Family cuts cake; sings happy birthday. The family sits and turns on a news station and discusses polarizing political issue.

How do you politely bow out of the conversation altogether without ruffling feathers? If I say "I don't have an opinion" then that creates a whole line of discussion why I should have an opinion. If I basically don't agree 100% with whatever opinion being discussed then the line of discussed turns to saying why I am wrong.

When you're pressed for your political view at a family gathering that you are forced to attend (be a warm body), how best to steer the general conversation away from politics? Or, how to verbally steer around point-blank political questions where you can't physically extricate yourself from.

  • Are these your blood relations, people you grew up with? Or are they "in-laws," your "acquired" family? – Tom Au Aug 18 '17 at 1:10
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    We probably haven't had this question because we're here to address problems people actually face. Right now this is hypothetical. We don't know who these "family" are in relation to you or whether you don't want to share your views because you prefer to keep them quiet in general or you don't have any or you have extremely different views than what your family has, so you stay quiet to keep the peace. Without these details the question is too broad and we can not formulate a helpful solution. – Catija Aug 18 '17 at 4:14
  • Agree with Catija. To sum up, the answers will be different on why you don't want to avoid the political topic, and your goal - might be just shutting them down without revealing your view? Or you are fine with revealing view with short answer and don't wish to further explain it? – Vylix Aug 18 '17 at 5:38
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    It is a problem people actually face. I face it quite regularly, not with my family, but with close friends. An I guess "why" is usually "because it gets ugly and everyone opposes everyone" and goal is to have a friendly conversation, not an argument. – Alissa Aug 18 '17 at 11:58
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    @Alissa No one is saying the problem doesn't generally come up. The problem with this question is that it is too broad because it's not a specific example. There's likely a different solution depending on all the variables I've mentioned and many others. – Catija Aug 18 '17 at 14:50
9

You will never be able to control what other people choose to discuss, unfortunately. You are fully within reasonable expectations to be able to say you dislike the topic. If you are at a social gathering, then it is socially polite for people to take into account that everyone enjoys themselves to a reasonable extent.

In general, you can make simple statements such as, "This is such a polarizing topic. Could we please just discuss something a little more fun and lighthearted?" In particular, if with family, I will add in something like how seldom I get to see them & I mostly want to laugh & catch up on one another's lives, and not dissect the problems of the world. This may not work as well in other arrangements that are more formal perhaps.

If asked point blank any question I do not wish to discuss I deflect. It's not just politics. I do it sometimes for sport, to make the point even. I have been asked if we are having any more children. I find this to be a very personal question for someone to throw at you in a group, so instead, I crack a joke by asking something of them that I find overly personal, such as "How much money did you make last year?" When they look confused then comes the punchline, said in good humor, "Oh I am sorry, I thought we were asking awkward questions, like a game. Oops".

How best to handle any given situation will depend on your personality type (if you aren't funny by nature, humor is likely out of the list of options). It depends on your relationship to the people within said conversation as well as the dynamic of the group. I have some family that we can have fascinating mutually respectful political banter for hours on end and everyone is enjoying it. On the other hand, I have other family that such a discussion leads to arguing & ruffled feelings in a matter of minutes (yet they don't have the good sense to avoid it). I used to work for someone with very strong opinions absolutely opposite of my own and he gravitated toward clients that were similar, or maybe they gravitated toward him? Either way, I was often subject to listening to them go on and on about things I absolutely was in opposition to. I generally remained quiet, said as little as possible, even at times claimed ignorance to avoid having to take any stance. I might in such cases, when asked what I thought, say something like,

I am sorry. Listening to you all discuss it has been enlightening, but I am afraid that I don't feel as informed as I should be to even make any assessment on that. I definitely intend to look into it more.

It was not my place in that environment to make my boss or our clientele uncomfortable with my personal political views which literally had absolutely nothing to do with the business I was in. No one would have been better off for me having aired my opposition and very likely I would have alienated myself. The "best" way to handle it will always be relative to all such types of variations of circumstance. In business, I prefer maximum privacy on personal views. I don't really want to hear what other people think about issues that do not pertain to work and likewise, I would prefer not to share. If it's more familiar-peer situation or family I believe it is reasonable to ask for a change of topic, and people might initially act put out, but can most often seem to move past the initial reaction and stop using that topic.

3

I often find that it works well to state my opinion on a topic, but acknowledge that there is internal conflict over which side is right. A lot of times, people just want to know that you're not a raging partisan for the other side, and that you're able to see their point of view, even if you don't fully agree with them.

So -- to cite an example from a completely non-stressful conversation this morning with someone I like -- I might say something like "you're right, crime in city xyz is really a problem sometimes; that shop down the road from our old house got robbed five times and finally stopped taking cash, and that's where my inner urbanist and my inner libertarian start coming to blows, since on one hand, there's no reason that customers should have to rely on a credit card company to buy coffee, but at the same time, there might just not be a coffee shop if they keep getting robbed -- there's really not much of a solution that will be acceptable to all sides."

And then, if you're trying to nudge the subject out of politicized waters, you can drift into some other intractable problem that you've seen, along with some creative and inspiring ways that people are trying to solve it. (Googling for "wicked problems" ahead of your family gathering will usually give you something for which people will have a sympathetic ear. It doesn't have to be something political.)

If you can start talking about that, you can then drift further into stories about people you know who are creative, using something like "that's the kind of solution I could picture my cousin Joe coming up with", and once you start talking about interesting people you've known, well ... that's a conversation that can go on for hours. People love talking about their acquaintances and families, and rightly so. There are usually very interesting stories to hear.


Added caveat: I'm probably not the best person to give advice about this topic, since I'm generally very interested in my family members' political opinions and don't often redirect away from that topic. But I imagine that this type of redirection could work in a lot of situations, assuming you want to avoid politics. Good luck!

1

Here are some approaches:

1. Ask Questions

1.1. On Topic

This is an attempt to subtly change the direction of the discussion. Ask a question about facts concerning the topic raised. Let the person trying to drag you into a political discussion show, if their knowledge goes deep enough to lead a meaningful conversation.

Don't ask too trivial/broad questions as if you had just spent 20 years living on the moon to avoid the impression that you are making fun of them ("Oh, there is a conflict?") or too petty technical questions ("How exactly is the propulsion working?"), that are of no importance and can't be answered (the problematic dead end).

Instead, ask questions about information, that is obviously necessary for the evaluation of the issue. This will either lead to a good dead end (i. e. the other person can't answer, although the information is important for the evaluation. So you can leave it at "let's get informed first.") or an opinion presents itself as the logical conclusion (it needn't be, but it may settle the matter without you ever having to give your own opinion).

Example with Star Wars for the sake of neutrality:

Bob: "Shall the rebels attack the star destroyer now?"

Me: "Does it have a weakness their weapons can exploit?"

Bob: "Yes."

Me: "Can the rebel force be there in time?"

Bob: "Yes.

Me: If they don't attack now, will the star destroyer destroy Jar Jar Bink's home planet?"

Bob: "Yes." ... "You are right, they should leave him alone for now."

This could, in the best case, end the political discussion right away. Else, it may still allow for the "verbally steer around point-blank political questions" approach.

It is a balancing act and the other person(s) may lose patience with you. However, in case of sensible questions, you always have a rational explanation for your behaviour. But in the end, you could still be hard-pressed, if it doesn't lead to a dead end or an "easy" solution. So it depends on the topic of your discussion.

An example of the problematic dead end:

Bob: "Shall the rebels attack the star destroyer now?"

Me: "Were Darth Vader's gloves made of leather?"

Bob: "Umm, I have no idea. Now, back to the question, please."

In this case, you don't manage to steer the discussion into a different direction. instead, you rather angered and embarrassed Bob (asking a pointless question, that he couldn't answer). The problem persists.

1.2. Personal

In your first example, it is quite striking how that person avoided anything personal. So you could, in a way, turn the tables on them and postpone the political discussion on some later, unspecified point in time.

Bob: "So you think we should drill!"

Me: "Let's leave politics aside for a moment. For how long haven't we seen each other - 10, 15 years? I've heard that you acquired land on Tatooine? How is life there?"

This approach drastically changes the topic and the other person may still insist. This gives you leverage (I know people who love to discuss politics to deflect from everything personal). Unless there were really urgent political issues requiring a decision now, the personal ones can claim to be of higher importance at family gatherings.

A drawback is that the other person may still catch you later.

1.3. On Topic and Personal

Just combine both approaches by asking directly how it would affect him. This is a good strategy to steer the discussion further away from the political issue and may lead you to totally different topics.

The drawback of this approach is, that it only works when the other person would actually be affected by it.

2. State Facts

This is a way to completely circumvent political discussions - either by shutting them down immediately or by counting as a sufficient answer (although you didn't state your opinion, especially if the facts suit them). The prerequisite is, that you know enough about the issue (optimal: know more than they do). If you stay neutral, they will probably get over it, so it's not rude.

This approach doesn't just depend on your knowledge, but also on a suitable topic. But it can be effective in political discussions of low quality. And it may instil respect in the others and they possibly won't so easily ask you again. (In the case of superior knowledge, you could use to follow 1.1 and ask especially mean questions. But that just on a side note, as you don't want to play such mind games).

I can't think of a better, artificial, example now:

Bob: "Shall the rebels attack the star destroyer now?"

Me: "The rebel force is not even half-ready yet."

Bob: "Oh,... Ok."

The fact may not always shut down the discussion immediately, but it may count as an answer to the question. In addition, while opinions can be debated, facts can't so easily (unless they are really dubious).

3. Give a statement

Instead of directly answering the question, you can give a general statement as a prelude to a possible answer. This applies especially if you are comfortable with and good at just starting to talk.

Possible positive effects:

  • The longer the statement, the greater the chances that it will prevent future questions (because you bore them).
  • You can include points that may change the direction of the discussion further.
  • The statement may count as an answer already, although it isn't directly one. This works especially then, when it seems to support the stance of Bob (in my examples). Most people are always ready to accept, what supports their own mindset.

Example:

Bob: "Shall the rebels attack the star destroyer now?"

Me: "This is a very good question. If the star destroyer becomes operational, too many lives are in danger. I wonder what those people living on planets in its immediate vicinity must feel now. However, the rebels probably have only one chance to strike successfully. If they fail, no one can stop the empire. So no premature action permitted. But I'm not sure about the role of the Jedi. Conflicting opinions about them exist. I'm no expert on this."

Bob: "The Jedi are the good guys!"

Me: "I trust you on this. I never fully understood what that force is, though."

Bob: "Okay, I'll try to explain..."

Downside: It is again a balancing act. If you stray away from the topic too much, you may even get interrupted. Also, if it doesn't meet their expectations, they may simply persist with their original question. And you need to be sure, that you don't spark even worse controversies by accident (or by choosing wrong distractions).

1

My extended family had a rule that covered this sort of thing:

No politics or religion at the dinner table.

Which was pretty strictly enforced by my grandmother because such topics didn't make for what she called "polite conversation".

I know it's an antiquated point of view by today's standards, but there's some wisdom there. People are going to argue when some topics come up, one way or the other, and sometimes it's worthwhile to just set them aside for the sake of getting together as a family.

I would recommend shutting it down the same way my grandmother used to:

This isn't the time or place. No politics or religion at the table.

Granted you may not be 'at the table', but simply reminding people that it isn't the time or place for the conversation is a pretty good idea.


Amusing anecdote...

Family matriarchs have an amazing ability to put the breaks on these things.

I remember getting together with my former in-laws during the last election cycle. The very right-leaning members of the family were going on about, then candidate, Trump. Eventually my ex-wife's grandmother had enough and said:

That man is just stupid and cruel.

Which totally ended the conversation. Nobody was going to challenge Grandma....

0

If, as I suspect, these are in-laws, I would ask my spouse to "run interference for me. Explain: I like your brother, sister, Uncle Sam, Aunt Alice, but not when they talk about (touchy political subject)." As a stopgap, I might say to them, "That is not my favorite subject. Could we talk about e.g. sports?"

If these are blood relatives that you've grown up with, there are probably "protocols" for 1) changing the subject and 2) leaving the room. Invoke these protocols.

In either case, it seems like you've married into, or inherited a bunch of politically-oriented people. My condolences.

  • Both inlaws and blood. – user3314 Aug 18 '17 at 22:27
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When X asks you about a loaded topic, laughingly say

You really should ask Y about this.

where Y is one member of the family you know likes to argue as well and is from the opposing faction from the one X belongs to/supports.

Then smile and either move away or immediately start to discuss another topic, e.g.

By the way, do you know where Aunt Petunia put the broom?

or

Have you seen yesterday's match of the Cannons? Was'nt it awesome!

This way you give them another target, implicitly let them know that you are not interested in the topic and then either remove yourself from the conversation or distract them with another topic.

You may use a two-step strategy to divert the topic. If you use a question of immediate importance like the first question above, you give it a certain urgency to be answered (you give the impression you need the broom soon). Once you got an answer the other person is already off their track (the original topic is pushed back), you can then build on the answer or just dive into another topic (like with the second example). Or you can use it as an excuse to leave (e.g. to fetch the broom).

0

Is your main problem the topic of discussion (politics), or rather than the discussions have a tendency to go beyond casual consversation?

If you have an issue with the topic of politics,

then I'm afraid there's not much you can do.

In example 2, based on your description, the entire family actively wants to discuss politics. They're allowed to do so, especially if all of them wish to do so.

Similarly: If they were all into dancing instead of politics, it'd be okay for you to not dance; but it wouldn't be okay for you to tell them to stop dancing.

In example 1, your relative seems to bring up something about you (that just happens to contain a political opinion), rather than trying to discuss politics for the sake of discussing politics. The fact that he immediately opens up a conversation in a direct manner, seems to be done with comical intention (comically overplaying the importance of your opinion on drilling).

Similarly: I am someone with an outspoken opinion about disliking Apple and their products. I might open up a conversation with my friend (who bought his first iPhone) by saying something like "So, an iPhone, huh?". As long as it's clear I'm being comical, and the person actually gets the joke, I'm not being offensive nor am I trying to spark a heated debate.

You may not like discussing politics. But your interpersonal issue is essentially no different from disliking other topics of conversation. All my friends have recently bought and/or renovated a house. Since then, as the only friend in the circle who still rents a place, I feel fairly disinterested in the almost constant talk about mortgages and renovations. Being in this position, I have three choices:

  1. Avoid the friends, so that I can avoid the topic of discussion.
  2. Forcibly change the topic, or directly ask them to change topics.
  3. Accept that they are talking about something that is important to them, even if that means I'll be observing more than participating.

1 is not always viable, and even then it's still a bad solution. 2 is fairly rude; you don't get to decide what others want to talk about.

Which is why I chose option 3. I let them talk about it, and the topic of conversation has died down after a year (since most of them are doing other things now).
Unfortunately for you, politics is a neverending source of discussion. It's likely that the family will always find some political issue to discuss.

But if that it the case, then that also inherently proves that the family wishes to discuss politics, and you shouldn't be telling people what they are allowed to talk about.

I would suggest you don't get involved with the discussion, politely responding when someone addresses you directly but without trying to further the discussion.
Eventually, someone will recognize that you're not getting involved with the discussion, and will talk to you about something else (at least, that's been my experience in most close-knit social gatherings)

If you have an issue with the intensity of the discussion,

you have more of a say. Note that you still cannot ask people to not talk about politics. But you can address the nature of the discussion you're a part of.

  • When first joining in the conversation, remark that you don't have a strong opinion on the topic. This makes it harder for someone to dig into a debate with you about how wrong you are (which is usually how political discussions derail).
  • Only engage in a discussion when you want to. If you don't want to, remain polite but try to avoid furthering the discussion. People who engage in political discussions tend to look for opposing arguments. If you don't oppose their argument, they will generally not lock onto you as a discussion partner.
  • If you don't want to engage in the discussion, consider the option of remaining an observer and not just walking away. It means that you're still participating in a social event, even if you're not adding much to the discussion. Maybe the discussion eventually reaches a more interesting focus for you, at which point you can chime in. Even if it doesn't, listening to others' argument will teach you about the person. You're still getting to know them, even if they don't quite get to know you because you're not an active part of the discussion.
  • When someone tells you their (conflicting) opinion, focus on the positive parts of what they said (it's well-reasoned, you see that there is merit to that line of thinking, he's definitely not alone in thinking this way, ...) Do not point out flaws in their argument, that just puts fuel to the fire.
  • When you feel that the discussion is getting out of hand, you can mention that. Mention that you're out of your comfort zone, or that you're not really able to discuss the nitty gritty details, or that you feel it's not the right time to go over the finer points.
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I am in this situation or like often with acquaintances and friends with diametrically opposing views. As long as the opinions are not hate-filled and advocating violent action, I usually just say something to the effect of 'this isn't a political discussion group. Those groups usually end up in arguments and bad feelings and I don't want to hear anything here that will make me think less of the speaker.'

If the opinion is extreme, hate-filled or the like, I say something to the effect of 'I don't think that's helpful or useful and I don't want to be part of any conversation or group that includes this kind of discussion, so either shut up or I'm going.'

My goal is not to continue the discussion by sneaking in my own opinion just to make clear that discussion is so uncomfortable for me that continuing it will result in my leaving.

Of course, this doesn't work well with a group of total strangers or in an elevator but that's a different question.

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