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OPINION | KAREN MARTIN: Toward a more perfect union

by Karen Martin | November 29, 2020 at 9:15 a.m.
Karen Martin

Who's looking forward to gathering with friends and families over the holidays?

Response to that question depends a lot on how divisive family/friend relations have become in the wake of the brutally polarizing election.

Sure, many of us will enjoy romping in the backyard (social distancing encourages such a setting) with young nieces and nephews, discussing a former college roommate's wedding plans, interrogating college-age students on what it's like to attend a university in the midst of a pandemic, and dropping masks long enough to enjoy a favorite aunt's renowned fried chicken or homemade lasagna or arroz con leche.

Still, there's always the chance that an innocent cross-table conversation could turn combative, especially if the subject wanders into politics.

This could be problematic during any year, but especially this one. A big reason is that people whose political leanings have never been revealed to us--we're too busy talking about dogs, or home decor, or some of the agreeable topics mentioned above--will suddenly decide to throw down the gauntlet and take on the reigning political opposite in the room.

What starts out as a measured exchange of ideas can quickly escalate into a buzz-killer, not only for the combatants, but for everyone in the room.

How can we avoid falling into such a black hole? Amy Dickinson, the Chicago Tribune's advice columnist, skips over vague platitudes about love and bloodline and camaraderie to give us concrete, workable ideas on how to get along during the holidays.

Among them:

• Don't bite the hook. "Recognize when you're being baited and just don't go there," she recently told NPR's Scott Simon. "You can ask people--and I've done this many times--'hey, let's talk about something else.' Go back to a shared experience that you and the other person can enjoy."

This technique works well with longtime friends, especially when the shared experience involves bad behavior in younger years. Everybody enjoys being thought of as a scofflaw, or a hell-raiser, or defier of authority, especially if such activity happened in the past. It will bring back memories of a different period for everyone, and quickly re-align a conversation that is heading off the tracks.

• Use "I" statements. "Don't say you're a racist, you're a bigot, you're an anti-Semite," Dickinson says. "If you want to have a relationship with this person, you say, 'That's offensive to me,' explain why, and ask the person not to talk that way." This is harder that the re-directing technique, but has the potential to produce more long-lasting results.

• Know where you put your coat. If an exchange with others has deteriorated to the point of no return: "Sometimes, especially in a large, crowded group, when I'm feeling not great, I will very quietly exit," Dickinson says. "And then I will contact the host later and say, hey, I had to slip out. Thank you so much."

In Arkansas we often leave our coats in the car so we don't have to bother rooting them out of a tangled pile on a bed while holding a paper plate full of leftovers and gulping the last of a lovely pinot noir. When all else fails, leave without the coat. It'll be worth it in the long run to be cold until the car heater kicks in, and it might save a relationship. (You should finish the pinot noir.)

And don't ever, ever get into a snipe-fest with friends and family members on social media or email or via text messages. Although it seems many don't realize this--it's amazing to see the bizarre, inappropriate, and idiotic information people post about themselves and others for all to see--written altercations will leave an indelible electronic paper trail that will surely find a chance to haunt participants.

Although such exchanges tend to give recipients a chance to consider the situation before replying, those who are infuriated don't often think before they type. Keep your combative remarks to yourself, or deliver them face-to-face and deal with the consequences.

A gathering of family and friends in the midst of political tribalism during the holidays may sound like a good reason to stay home and watch Netflix. But we've all been doing enough of that. It's time to face the family.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.


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