18

Background

Today, I was in my workplace kitchen where I was having lunch. There were other coworkers having lunch there too. One of them (let's call him Bob) was talking about political stuff and displaying his (extreme) political views that I strongly disagree with.

At some point, I said something to contradict him but immediately realized it was a mistake (because I know from experience that arguing with him was pointless since none of us would have changed their mind). Also, interacting with other people is tiring for me and I really didn't have the energy to argue with anyone. So after, he started to respond to me, I just stopped him and said:

Forget I said anything, I don't want to talk about that.

Bob tried to keep responding to me but I interrupted him a second time:

No, no, I don't want to talk about that with you, just forget that I am here and that I said anything.

At this point, Bob did what I asked and turned to the other coworkers in order to continue the conversation.

The situation

Not soon later, a new coworker (Alex) entered the kitchen and sat next to me in order to eat. Bob was still displaying his extreme political view and I was uncomfortable because I didn't want Alex to think that I agreed with Bob (because, when you don't say anything, people might think you agree with what is being said).

However, arguing against Bob wasn't an option (for the reasons already explained).

Question

How could I have made it clear to Alex (maybe non-verbally) that I did not share Bob's views?

Note that, since this was a workplace situation, I didn't want to be more rude than necessary (which I feel I already was when I strongly refused to talk politics with Bob).

Also, I'm on the autism spectrum which means that my non-verbal communication might have been misinterpreted as me agreeing with Bob (or not really disagreeing with him).

Notes and clarifications

  • I don't want a way to tell Alex, after the fact: "I don't share Bob's views". I want a way to make Alex aware that I don't share Bob's views, during the facts (because I only see Alex during lunch and coming back to this "incident" after that would be weird. Also, I don't want to be bothered about that all day).

  • I don't think that Alex shares Bob's views (but I don't really know for sure).

  • I would rather avoid a solution that would require me to have a long, in-depth conversation with Alex about Bob's views/this particular political subject.

  • Culture is France but answers don't need to be limited to this country.

  • When I arrived in the kitchen myself, Bob was already talking and if someone hadn't contradicted him on a specific (very racist) point, I would have been very worried that everyone was agreeing with Bob (on this very racist point). When Alex arrived, there was no one who was currently contradicting Bob (they all decided to go silent) and the only person making conversation with Bob was ok with what Bob was saying. So, in this situation, if I had been Alex, I would have been worried that everyone was agreeing with Bob.

  • Even if Alex might have not interpreted my silence as me agreeing with Bob, the idea that this could have been the case was making me uncomfortable (I'm on the autism spectrum, so my non-verbal language could have been "off" and lead people to think that I agree with Bob).

  • I don't want to engage in any kind of conversation with Bob.

  • Do you assume that Alex agreed with Bob? – Upper_Case May 21 at 18:01
  • @Upper_Case No, I don't think Alex agree with Bob – Ælis May 21 at 18:38
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    Why not, given that he (per what has been related here) did not speak up against Bob's statements? And if you don't assume Alex agrees with Bob's views, despite his lack of explicit rejection of those views in the moment, is there a particular reason that you are concerned people will assume differently with respect to yourself? – Upper_Case May 21 at 18:41
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    @Upper_Case Alex was just joining the kitchen so, if they disagreed with Bob, they hadn't had the time to speak against them. Also, Alex was farther away to Bob than I was so it was more difficult for Alex to speak up against Bob (but Alex was still close enough to listen to what Bob was saying). Also, the only idea that Alex might think that I agreed with Bob's views was making me uncomfortable. – Ælis May 21 at 18:53
18

Note that, since this was a workplace situation, I didn't want to be more rude than necessary (which I feel I already was when I strongly refused to talk politics with Bob).

You were a bit rude by dropping in a comment, and then refusing to discuss it further. Generally, when discussing politics, you listen to what the other person has to say, that's proper etiquette:

  1. Allow the other person to state his or her opinion – Don’t interrupt – allow others to make their feelings heard.

Then again, you made it clear that your remark slipped out, wasn't intended on being said out loud and that you did not want actually want to participate in the discussion, and Bob did as you asked. You weren't all that rude in your replies, and I wouldn't worry much more about this.


Also, I'm on the autism spectrum which means that my non-verbal communication might have been misinterpreted as me agreeing with Bob (or not really disagreeing with him).

Then let me focus on the non-verbal communication here a bit. As Upper_Case's answer rightfully states, you really don't have to worry much about this issue, but one way to show you're not talking with Bob would be to physically distance yourself from Bob and his conversation, if possible. So, if Bob is already animatedly talking politics when you enter the kitchen, try and pick a different table.

If that's not possible, and you find yourself at Bob's table like today, focus your body language on showing disengagement:

  • As for facial expression, a furrowed brow and clenched jaw could be used to express that you're overhearing Bob's conversation, but are disagreeing with what you're hearing. Just don't make it continuous, but more of a short reaction to Bob's louder remarks, if he makes such. If you're continuously wearing the same (negative) facial expression, while you're showing disagreement people will still think you engaged in the conversation. You might have an easier time with the next two points.
  • Don't look at Bob or the group of people he's talking with. Instead, try and look around the kitchen, see what other people are doing. One of the important things when having a conversation is eye-contact, but by going even further and not looking at the group but around the kitchen, you give off an impression of being totally uninterested in the ongoing conversation. And by looking around, you might catch the eye of another coworker you can have your lunch with.
  • If you can, turn your head or even your body physically away from Bob. That way it becomes even clearer that you're not looking at what's going on, and that you're not passively engaged in Bob's conversation. Don't make this too silly by overdoing it, don't go looking at the wall.
  • As for the feet mentioned in that article, I don't think they're really important with regards to a conversation in a workplace kitchen. These are more for when Bob would be facing everyone, like in a lecture.

How could I have made it clear to Alex (maybe non-verbally) that I did not share Bob's views?

As other answers state, I also feel you might be worrying too much here. You don't automatically assume Alex shares Bob's views, you can have a little trust that Alex won't assume anything of you. But you haven't described your body language, so if it was the exact opposite of what I described above, you might have something to worry about. If it wasn't what I described above but also not the complete opposite, don't assume Alex will think you share Bob's views.

I would really stick with the non-verbal communication. I've personally found that if I talked about Bob's political views, and my opinion on it, with Alex, that is usually seen as gossiping. And although I've never done it with Bob still around, that would be even more awkward, especially after you've said to Bob you're not willing to discuss with him. If I'm showing my disapproval of some aspect of someone, without either addressing that with the person itself or focusing the conversation on advice on how to deal with that aspect of that person I disapprove part of, things are seen as gossiping and quite rude.

A remark that carries a message like 'I want you to know that I disagree with what Bob is saying' when Bob is just over there isn't going to work, because it carries the risk that Bob will overhear, feel attacked, and probably won't understand why you don't want to talk politics with him but are willing to state your views to Alex.

39

I don't think you need to be concerned about this issue, which is great because I don't know of a natural way to do this. It's odd to demand that everyone be aware of views you hold just so they know what views you hold.

I guess this is a frame challenge. I think that it's unlikely that Alex would think you share Bob's political views just because you were nearby while Bob was talking at your office. I also think that it's irrelevant what Alex thinks of your political views based on such an insubstantial observation.

Why doesn't informing people "in the moment" work?

There are a couple of reasons. First, if Bob is rambling on about a political topic, and you interrupt him to make your own position known (making sure everyone in the room is aware you don't share Bob's views), you are implicitly countering Bob's position and arguments (if any). By saying you have a different position that you think is correct, you are saying that you think Bob is wrong.

That's not a big deal, but the natural follow up to that would be to discuss the issue. If you, personally, don't really want to do that, then fine. But it's not a good interpersonal skill to assert that others are wrong, to their face, and then refuse to explain why that is true or why a better position exists.

Further, because the problem you are worried about seems so unlikely it will seem mysterious why it's so important to you that everyone knows you disagree with Bob (again, it's far from automatic that people would assume you agree). It's sort of like a (made up) situation where Bob comes in with a new haircut, and you make a point of telling everyone that you think Bob is not attractive. Since there's no reason people would make such a specific assumption to the contrary (Bob's new haircut doesn't say anything about you or your preferences), it's bizarre to make such a blatant statement, and the perceived effect would be an insult to Bob (since you're criticizing him to no particular purpose).

Political discussions are usually about the issues being discussed, not the people who are talking. When Bob is describing what he thinks is true about the world, your counter with something that's true about yourself and your views is off-topic. It will always seem like you are either engaging on the issues (in seeming bad faith, if you're unwilling to discuss) or are levelling a personal insult against Bob. It will never seem like you are just making your position known so much as seeming like you want to point out that you think Bob is wrong, without any elaboration or opportunity for Bob to defend his position (which he is presenting without any implications about your own beliefs). There is no non-rude way to do such a thing, and that's true no matter how you try to express the information (verbally or otherwise).

What can you do instead?

You can physically separate yourself from Bob. Even if there is some possibility that people will assume you share his views (which, again, I think is overblown here), that's far less likely if you're at a different table on the opposite end of the room.

A good option, which I have used in workplaces, is simply to ask that he not talk about politics and thereby elide the issue. There are a lot of ways to do that, and I can't predict how Bob will react without knowing him, but something like

Let's keep things professional and not discuss charged political topics in the office. We all have to work together, and going on about contentious topics doesn't make that easier.

This may or may not work. If following/discussing/ranting about politics is Bob's only hobby, and he's passionate about it, he may not be inclined to stay quiet. Unless there's an office policy against discussing politics (and which you care to see enforced), you probably can't make him stop.

If you simply must do this, you can quietly mention your disagreement to Alex.

As described above, I really feel that this is not necessary. But if 100% of your objective is to make sure that Alex knows you disagree, you can quietly tell him so. Lean over and, in a low voice, say something like

I don't agree with Bob here, but I really don't want to get into a whole discussion with him about it.

Make no mistake: this is a bit weird, and will seem even more so if you are seated at a table with Bob, or are near enough that he might overhear you saying it. But the weirdness comes from the situation, in which you want to make the fact of your views known just so that people know it.

You can't have it both ways: expressing your political views requires you to actually express them, and doing so in contradiction of someone else (who is physically present and will observe your reaction) will almost always read as part of an issues-based discussion. Expressing your views in contradiction to Bob's is inherently participating in the discussion, so you can't really do that and avoid discussing.

Satisfying all of the preferences expressed in the question flouts many norms of conversation and social engagement, in service of a goal that seems unnecessary.


Personal experiences

As mentioned in comments, it's hard to observe a norm in any kind of decisive way. But I know a lot of people who are politically interested but not especially politically engaged. They (variously) watch news programs, read news blogs/Twitter accounts/newspapers/etc., and have well-defined opinions and positions on major political topics.

However, these particular people do not put much emphasis on learning or building arguments for their positions. This has described myself as well on some occasions, though the worst of it was in years past (I'll blame youth and being too immersed in news sources that were ultimately shallow ones, but that's tangential).

The result is that, when they feel it's appropriate to speak up, they can mostly only express their positions, and generally are not able to defend them very well or persuade others to believe what they believe. Their inability to discuss the issues in any substance all but guarantees that a conversation on those topics will go nowhere-- what other result could there be, when all they can express is the fact of their belief?

The specific techniques that I use when such a person brings up a political topic, or otherwise tries to engage in a political discussion, varies depending on the specific people involved (some people are very resistant to being redirected, for example, and some can't handle confrontation or having their ideas interrogated).

But in all cases actual discussion of the topic fails, because the only things they can really express on the subject are:

  1. that they have an opinion
  2. What that opinion is

So when they express their views, conversations either move on (essentially ignoring their comments), make a perfunctory acknowledgement that their opinion exists (and then move on), or become trapped in a cycle of trying to get more information than the person can express (if they don't know an argument that leads to their conclusion, they can't express it or respond to other arguments; all they can do is reiterate that they have an opinion and restate what that opinion is).

Because expressing only the fact of your view is a conversational dead-end, it's basically a non-sequitur. One of the general assumptions in a conversation is that someone making a comment is making a relevant comment (Grice's maxim of relation, if you've studied Pragmatics). These kinds of comments do not respond to previous points, nor do they invite additional input. They are conversation enders, since further discussion is impossible as there is no more information to discuss. Unless someone has asked for an opinion, simply stating an opinion and expressing that you hold it is, by itself, irrelevant.

11

Politics is a minefield in the workplace, and our hyper-partisan current divide only makes things worse. I am more of a libertarian, which means I really don't agree with either side's rantings.

What I've found works for me is to not engage in silly debates about this. I worked for a while with a former '60s radical, and we both agreed pretty quickly that we weren't going to change each other's mind. From there, it became easy to ask "what do you think of this" and realize that I wanted to understand his thought process, not argue with him. That's one way out of this jam.

The second thing is to be open that "we don't share views, and I hope that we can agree to disagree". If Bob can't handle that when you remain calm and say "hey, let's just disagree here and move on", then there's nothing else you can add to the conversation. With Alex, it's all in your tone. It's not as hard as it sounds to disagree with someone on a topic yet still respect him and that's needed here. "Bob's a good guy; we just look at this differently". That shows your respect for Bob, yet says that you don't agree on this subject. And during the initial discussion, it's easy to say "Bob, I'm going to just say I don't see it this way. I don't discuss politics at work, so can we agree that we disagree?" That's worked for me with my liberal co-workers. (The more conservative ones just aren't as political, so I haven't needed to do this.)

PS. I'd be careful about labeling others "extreme". These days, it seems that the other guy's views (irrespective of what they are) are "extreme" and saying that only makes things worse. Almost no one considers themselves to be extreme, and that labeling doesn't help.

  • I France, we have the "extreme right" and the "extreme left" and people don't seem to care about being called "extreme". – Ælis May 21 at 14:30
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    Also, I'm not sure I understand your advice. Are you saying that I should just ignore Bob (who is sitting near me) and then turn to Alex in order to tell them, out of the blue, "Bob's a good guy; we just look at this differently"? – Ælis May 21 at 14:35
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    Ah, I misunderstood. I thought you were communicating to Alex. Either way, the response can be the same: to be decent to Bob and just politely say you don't share views. When Bob spouts off, that's when you offer him grace and just say "we don't agree" but don't let it go farther than that. You want to make the point that you don't share his views; you're not looking to change them. – baldPrussian May 21 at 14:59
  • That's more or less what I did with Bob. Then I stop communicating with anyone and then Alex entered the kitchen. What I want is to don't let Alex think that, since I am not saying anything, I agree with Bob. – Ælis May 21 at 15:02
8

OP here.

The day this incident happened, I use the following solution. I was wondering if there were other ways I could have done what I wanted to do, and that is why I wrote this question.

So, here is what I did:

When Alex arrived, I just saluted him and then stayed silent (because we had nothing to talk about). When I felt that the discomfort caused by Bob's talk was too much, I turn to Alex and told him:

You regret not decided to eat in the other kitchen, don't you?

This was a roundabout way to let Alex know that I was regretting not having decided to eat in the other kitchen because Bob's political talk was making me uncomfortable (because I didn't share Bob's views).

To my question, Alex responded by:

Yeah, don't they know that you don't talk politic at work?

This answer reassured me because I felt that my remark was a bit rude toward Bob. However, since Alex agreed with me and didn't show disapproval, it means that I wasn't that rude.

After that, things were still tense (because Bob was still talking about his political views), so I engage Alex in a different discussion (first by trying to talk about the next day off, then by successfully talking about TV shows).

Since we were now talking loudly, Bob and his conversation partner move to a different part of the room and things became much more comfortable.

  • Honestly I'm surprised nobody suggested something like this. It seems you handled it pretty well! If you want to express the same sentiment non verbally, you could meet Alex's eyes, then glance over at Bob, then sigh/grimace/roll your eyes or something else like that, but your comment works just as well unless you think Bob will overhear it and start something. Starting a conversation about something else is also a good move to show you're not interested in the current conversation, too. – Kat May 24 at 20:30
2

You mention you don't want Alex to think you agree, but that you do not know where Alex stands, either. You also mention that you don't want to bring it up with Alex after lunch, that you only see Alex at lunch and no other time. This implies you are not particularly close and this is a work-based companionship. In that case, I think you could approach it one of two ways to avoid alienating Alex unintentionally:

1) Ask Alex for thoughts the next time Bob is talking.

If you choose this option, you are doing so merely to understand where Alex is on the topic. Therefore, with a calm demeanor and a neutral tone say something generic like "What do you think?" Mentally prepare for an answer you may not want. If Alex says "yeah, totally agree with Bob" then I suggest changing the subject if you don't want to damage the situation with Alex.

2) Make a generalized statement like "I really prefer not talking about politics at work"

I personally find that completely avoiding conversations about politics at work is best, regardless of agreeing or disagreeing. It will undoubtedly make someone in the proximity uncomfortable (Like you seem to be when Bob is talking). That is also a reason why simply trying to infer to Alex that you disagree with Bob may not be the best action, either. Without more knowledge about Alex's views, you run the risk of alienating Alex if there is an agreement with Bob.

So, the first option would get you a better understanding of where Alex stands first, and the second option would make it clear that you and Alex should continue your lunches devoid of political discussion, and perhaps engaging in conversation that helps you tune Bob out if that is possible.

-3

While I agree with others that it may be considered in poor taste to state that you feel that Bob is wrong, and then refuse to talk further, it is perfectly acceptable to ask Bob a question that insinuates your position, but does not directly challenge Bob. I'm a big fan of the Socratic method, which involves asking the questions necessary to allow people to either come to the correct conclusions on their own, or to dig themselves a hole so deep that they get burned.

The general procedure that I propose is: 1) Bob says things. 2) Ask Bob a question. (This is your opportunity to imply opposition, if you like) 3) Politely allow Bob to answer. (You did ask him a question after all) 4) Go about your business.

Example:

Bob: "Proponents of [X] are [insult U] because they are [insult H] and [insult G]"

Me: (with mild disbelief) "Do you really hate proponents of [X] so much, Bob?"

Bob: "... [literally anything, it doesn't matter in the least.]"

Me: "hmmm"

It can be made any degree of clear that you find Bob's views extreme and somewhat distressing by how much tone-of-disbelief you put into your question.

You asked Bob a question, so you have no position to rebut. Your having asked Bob a question obligates you to pretend to pay attention to Bob's answer. Listen politely to Bob's immediate answer (He gets one or two sentences, max), then excuse yourself. A simple, gentle and disinterested "hmmm" is a perfectly acceptable response and, if anything, reinforces the fact that you don't give Bob's words much weight. Other possibilities are "ah" or "I see that you feel strongly about this subject." or something else that politely acknowledges that Bob has spoken to you, that you have heard him, but does not imply agreement and allows Bob the last word. It might be easy at this point to instinctively say something like "I see." or to nod, but this might convey that Bob has convinced you of something, which is not the case. If Bob asks you questions about your position, your method of declining to answer with "I'd prefer to not talk about this right now." is totally acceptable.

It might also be tempting to say something contrarian at this point, but the polite way to excuse yourself from an argument is to allow your opponent the last word. Politely but firmly excusing yourself from a conversation can be hard for some people, so this step may require preparation. Having a sandwich or a cell phone or someone else to engage on a different topic to divert your attention is handy at this point.

Once you've allowed Bob to answer, just proceed to eat your lunch. You have no obligation to engage Bob further.

NB: Personally, I would be doing this to gadfly Bob. If you are trying to inform others, this would only work if they actually hear you, which means they need to be actively engaged with Bob. If the other people in the room are busy trying to ignore Bob, then whatever you say to Bob will be lost, and you'd might as well not even bother. The best option is to probably simply ignore Bob.

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    I'm not sure how this would work in the situation described - OP already made a comment to Bob and then disengaged before Alex walked in. How do they re-engage to ask this question in front of Alex when they've just told Bob they don't want to discuss it? Also, it'd be great if you could add a bit about your personal experience with this technique or even a reference, to fit our citation expectations. – Em C May 22 at 16:23
  • Obviously, it is too late to remedy the Alex situation using this procedure, since that occurred in the past. It seems that the OP wants to know what they should do in the future should such a situation arise. This is evidenced by the statement "How could I have made it clear to Alex" (emphasis mine). Presumably, in the future, the OP would not have originally engaged Bob at all: "immediately realized it was a mistake". The question is about what to do instead of sitting silently. – Scott May 22 at 16:27
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    Sure, what I was trying to get at is that it seems like this only works for the coworkers in the room at the time. What if a coworker walks in after OP has asked their question? Is there anything they can do then? – Em C May 22 at 16:35
  • "this only works for the coworkers in the room at the time." This seems to me to be exactly what the OP wants to accomplish. ""I don't want a way to tell Alex, after the fact: 'I don't share Bob's views'." The OP wants to accomplish this in real-time, so that they can occupy the same space as Bob and others while making clear to others, in real time, that the OP does not share Bob's views. I personally feel that accomplishing that task is unnecessary, but that is irrelevant. The OP wants to accomplish that, and telling them what they can do afterward answers a different question. – Scott May 22 at 16:38
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    I'm sorry but your answer won't work for me since I don't want to engage in any kind of conversation with Bob. Also, there are continuously people coming in and out of the question, so this doesn't solve the issue if I do as you are suggesting and then someone else comes in afterward. – Ælis May 22 at 17:48

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