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Want to know what your fellow Americans care about? There's a poll for that.

Among the hottest topics, according to a recent poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, are health care, taxes, immigration, environment/climate change, education, economy, racism, Trump, jobs, and terrorism.

Partisan differences figure into who cares about what. The top issue for Democrats and independents is health care; Republicans list it as a close second behind immigration. Democrats are more likely to fret about the environment and climate change, education, and racism. Republicans are more likely to mention terrorism as being a top policy concern.

Concerns expressed in surveys don't necessarily translate into icebreakers. Because of partisan differences, we're not always eager to engage others on some of these subjects; we're too polarized and overexposed to political positioning. It's just plain awkward to casually bring up, say, a horror of the effects of melting Arctic ice--assuming that everybody feels that way--when hanging out in the break room with a perfectly nice co-worker who, it turns out, absolutely does not believe the world is getting warmer.

It wasn't always this way, but it sure is now. Going to dinner with old friends might not be a pleasant prospect if you suspect they may be willing to share their (d)evolving positions on politics, public policy and national issues. It might be easier to keep the talk small and focused on less divisive subjects.

Yet people do still talk to each other. This is evident at my neighborhood fitness center. Maintaining a neutral countenance and keeping one's own counsel are effective ways to eavesdrop on others' conversations without having to participate.

My gym isn't especially noisy (Nautilus machines and treadmills don't make much racket, and the array of TVs are usually close-captioned), so it's easy to pay attention to others' exchanges. By keeping one's mouth shut and not intruding into those exchanges, there's a lot that can be learned.

First of all, there's less political debate than you might suspect. While a couple of members may be murmuring off in a corner, it's unlikely they're trading opinions on the current administration or latest public policy uproar. Such chats tend to focus on the use and best sources of bodybuilding supplements. Some of these are probably less than legal, which accounts for the low volume.

At our gym, at least, members seek subjects of common ground. Big right now is college football, especially the record of Arkansas State University (where several gym members are alumni). For me, these aren't much fun to overhear, as the exchanges tend to be far more technical than my limited knowledge of and interest in football can comprehend. Still, it seems to be a cheerful subject, even if the teams being considered aren't doing well. Solutions to on-field shortcomings are confidently if inexpertly revealed.

Another topic: others' workout routines. Although the trainers are careful to not give advice to anyone other than their clients, there's one situation that they'll remark upon. That's because nobody likes to be around this one guy who assembles all sorts of equipment in the middle of a walkway, then scares everybody by swinging kettle balls while kicking his legs toward the ceiling. It's only a matter of time until he loses his balance or lets go of the iron ball. No good can come of this.

Cars are safe and upbeat. The recent sight of a Tesla in the parking lot spurred lots of interchanges about electric battery-powered vehicles (pro and con). And everybody happily weighs in when a member shows up with a new pickup.

The gym has a wall of windows that allow patrons to observe a busy arterial road that leads downtown; when the traffic on that road backs up, theories are offered on why that's happening. Some are more coherent than others.

Thanks to the Internet, there's no need to tell one another stupid jokes. Instead, funny YouTube videos are shared.

And you can't go wrong by bringing up the weather. Never a dull moment there. Pop music can be more combative. Depending on which of the personal trainers gets there first, the gym's sound system can switch from classic rock (repetitive, but comfortingly familiar) to heavy metal to Cardi B.

You can't please everybody, but nobody criticizes other's choices. They just politely wait until the room clears out, then change the channel. Nobody has ever tried to crank up NPR or pundits like Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity when I've been there.

This is not to say that our gym members don't have extreme opinions when it comes to politics, immigration, health care, the environment, taxes, racism, and the current administration. The information contained in national polls isn't wrong. Our chats in between sets on the Smith machine simply reveal that civility, which is all but disappearing in public forums, still exists in Arkansas. Let's hope it stays that way.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

Editorial on 11/04/2018

Print Headline: Overheard at the neighborhood gym

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