On Thanksgiving, families come together around a table to break bread. The topic of politics is practically unavoidable while passing the mashed potatoes, but there are ways to facilitate friendly rules, according to Daniel L. Shapiro, Ph.D., founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, associate professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital, and affiliate faculty at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.
In his article, Talking Politics at the Thanksgiving Table, Shapiro says, “The single most powerful force pulling us toward polarization is what I call the tribes effect, a divisive mindset that affects nations as much as families. The moment our beliefs feel attacked, tribal impulses slice our humanity into categories: it’s us vs. them, red vs. blue, hawk vs. dove. This state of mind propels us to defend our own views and demonize the other, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of negative relations.”
Shapiro says that pre-existing rivalries exacerbate this tension. “As siblings feud over politics, they may refuse to acknowledge each other’s perspective for fear that it will confirm personal insecurities that the other is smarter or more successful. Winning overshadows understanding.”
When politics gets personal, Shapiro says, “we risk becoming so consumed in the vertigo-like swirl of strong emotions that we resort to ad hominem attacks– the family’s version of negative campaigning—and end up saying things that are hard to forgive, sabotaging long-term relations.”
How to enjoy Thanksgiving without invoking the tribes effect
Decide whether politics is the right topic of conversation. “Envision what a productive conversation would look like – and if it’s even feasible,” says Shapiro.
Know why you’re talking about politics in the first place. Are you bringing up the topic to learn, or to debate? “A useful question is to ask each person to share how the election has personally affected them. This reframes the focus of conversation away from divisive politics and toward its personal impact, and the question is simple enough for even kids to answer,” says Shapiro.
Find your stopping place. Politics shouldn’t be the sole dialogue at the dinner table. Shapiro suggests capping the discussion at dessert. One way to reinforce family cohesion, Shapiro says, is for “everyone to share one thing they are grateful for about the family. A little appreciation can go a long way in rekindling connection.”
This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.