Editorial: How to handle relatives at Thanksgiving

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

For many, one of the most time-honored traditions around the Thanksgiving holiday is the guarantee that at least one relative will take a stand on a political issue.

It could be the vegan cousin who protested with PETA once and shames you every year for eating turkey. Or it could be the uncle who won’t take his MAGA hat off at the dinner table, smugly touching a gravy-coated finger to the brim every once in a while as if to draw everyone’s attention to it.

It may feel more important now than ever to speak out against opinions you disagree with and to correct people who are spreading false information. While Thanksgiving dinner at your great-aunt’s house is not the ideal place to throw hands with your grandpa, there are ways of confronting loved ones without turning the conversation into a battleground whence your relationships may never recover.

The holidays are so famously daunting as a time for political fights that former psychiatrist Dr. Karin Tamerius created an interactive program called Angry Uncle Bot to help teach people how to engage in civil political conversations. Tamerius is the founder and managing director of Smart Politics, a nonprofit organization that teaches people how to communicate in spite of a political climate that discourages productive conversation.

When you first engage with the Angry Uncle Bot, the program asks you to choose between a more liberal and a more conservative uncle to talk to. It then begins a conversation with the kind of statement the user would most dread to hear from a family member.

“Trump has been great for America!” the conservative Bot says. The liberal bot starts off with “We need medicare for all.”

The user then has three options for responses and can choose how incendiary they want to be — pick one and find out if you’d start an argument or maintain a civil discourse.

According to Tamerius, there are five steps to leaving a conversation with a relative without ending up at each others’ throats — ask curious, non-judgmental questions, listen to the answers, reflect on their answers, agree before you disagree and share your own view based on personal experience.

“At the heart of the method is a simple idea,” Tamerius says. “People cannot communicate effectively about politics when they feel threatened. Direct attacks — whether in the form of logical argument, evidence or name-calling — trigger the sympathetic nervous system, limiting our capacity for reason, empathy and self-reflection.”

So while it might be tempting to get angry at your relatives, it is possible to direct the conversation in a way that is inclusive and non-criticizing without having to disown anyone. Listening to what others have to say and trying to understand the way they experience things can be a good exercise for anyone.

But there are some topics with which you might not feel comfortable taking a more lenient approach. When relatives make bigoted or just misinformed statements, you should feel comfortable correcting them — politely, of course, and with plenty of listening.

Either way, you shouldn’t let politics ruin time with your family — or mashed potatoes — for you.