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Your family’s political fights don’t have to ruin Christmas

December 24, 2014 at 6:30 PM EST
The holiday season is a time of joy, love and the occasional family brawl over politics. Steven Petrow of The Washington Post joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how to make it through the big family dinner while staying on speaking terms.
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GWEN IFILL: It is, of course, the holiday season, a time of joy and love, and, of course, the occasional family dispute.

One moment on C-SPAN recently caught our attention. Brothers Brad and Dallas Woodhouse were speaking about their own sharp political divide when they took a surprise call.

MAN: Let’s go to Joy — now go to Joy in Raleigh, North Carolina.

MAN: Hey, somebody’s from down South.

WOMAN: Well, are you right I’m from down South.

MAN: Oh God, it’s mom.

WOMAN: And I’m your mother.

And I disagree that all families are like ours. I don’t know many families that are fighting at Thanksgiving.

MAN: Is this really your mother?

MAN: My mom.

WOMAN: I was very glad that this Thanksgiving was a year that you two were supposed to go to your in-laws. And I was hoping — and I’m hoping you will have some of this out of your system when you come here for Christmas.

GWEN IFILL: So, is it so unusual to have a family that fights over politics during the holidays?

We decided to ask a few people in a heavily political area just outside Washington.

WOMAN: I’m one of those people. We just don’t discuss it. I’m on one end, and my brother is on the other end, and we just do not discuss it, period.

MAN: It is the holidays. No matter if it is Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, it’s time for family, and everybody put thing aside and worry about what and who we are, family.

MAN: Just remember they’re your family, and you don’t have to agree with them.

MAN: I think we can’t get away from it. I think it is inevitable. So we are — all just kind of deal with the holidays, and we are — enjoy ourselves, hopefully safe, and wish everybody a merry Christmas and happy new year.

GWEN IFILL: Hari Sreenivasan has more on the science of relationships and how to avoid problems at your family table.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Joining me now from Raleigh, North Carolina, is the civility columnist for The Washington Post, Steven Petrow.

Thanks for being with us.

So a lot of us are heading to dinners or time with family that inevitably has some stress built in because of the opinions that they might hold, whether it’s about politics, whether it’s about other issues that are facing America right now. How do you deal with those family members who you just really disagree with strongly?

STEVEN PETROW, The Washington Post: Well, first of all, great to be with you. Happy Christmas Eve.

You know, I put a little post up on my Facebook wall earlier this afternoon and quickly got some snark back on this question: Eat by yourself or bring lots of duct tape.

So I’m going to move away from the snark here. Let me just say, this is not really easy. Everyone thinks civility is something that just kind of rolls off your tongue. You know, we have just been through a bruising political season, left and right, Democrat and Republican. So many folks are habituated to being on social media, where snark and sass and everything is really the language du jour.

And then, all of a sudden, bam, it’s Christmas Day, and family is in one room around one table looking at each other, and you’re hoping to get out of there alive. So I have three pointers that I want to make suggestions about.

The first is, make some pre-rules. And that means, you need to do that tonight. What do I mean by that? If you know the triggers in your family, the hot topics — let’s say it’s marriage equality or it’s Ferguson or it’s abortion — agree beforehand you are not going to have them on the table tomorrow. Just put them aside. You can come back.

Number two, don’t personalize it. If you are going to talk about issue, don’t dare say, Uncle John, you are, you know, Barack Obama incarnate or Mitch McConnell incarnate, whatever it is. So keep it general.

And I think the last point is really important. We have lost the art of conversation and listening. I think a lot of that comes from social media, Hari. We are so used to flaming and blocking and defriending, that we don’t know how to listen. We don’t know how to engage people.

And I really want to encourage everyone to do a little bit more of that and see where these conversations can go, because it’s really great to have friends and family that you don’t always agree with. You actually learn from them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I have seen some stats that say a quarter of us have defriended people based on some of the things that they have shared on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, policy disagreements, really, that we don’t necessarily think about. But we say, you know, somehow, it does affect the core of us and who we are.

STEVEN PETROW: Yes.

I was very surprised at the Pew study statistic; 26 percent have defriended or blocked for political matters. It is not even something personal. It is politics. And we have really gotten habituated to not wanting to see those who disagree with us, you know, and not wanting to talk with them.

And that’s reflective of the larger culture. And I think when many of us say what can we do about this world that we live in, one thing we can do is start at home at the holiday table tomorrow.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, one strategy that people sometimes take is the silent treatment. Let’s just avoid this altogether. Let’s just deal with this once a year. I can be in the same room with this person, but I don’t have to talk about it. Let’s just not talk with them altogether.

Does that work?

STEVEN PETROW: I — I’m afraid not. But it’s a very prevalent tactic or strategy.

And there’s a study that came out from Texas Christian not long ago, 14,000 people. And it looked at the effects of sort of the cold shoulder effect or the silent treatment. And, basically, the result was, it’s manipulative and it’s not productive.

So, folks, again, it’s about talking. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree. It means that we’re going to find our way through this. And I think at every table tomorrow, there will be conflicts. That is really a given. It’s how we manage them that is important, how we talk our way through, so no silent treatment, sorry.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. And what — if it’s not intense political disagreement or about the state of race in America or inequality, what about if it is just the person that you are going to have dinner with that is annoying, and you know it’s annoying and other people know it’s annoying, but you have to sit with it and bear with it?

What is your — what is your best tip?

STEVEN PETROW: Hari, do you have one of those in your family too?

HARI SREENIVASAN: I’m not — I take the Fifth right now.

STEVEN PETROW: I’m taking the Fifth too, because I have got two families probably watching.

You know, there’s actually a beauty about having one person in a family who irritates everybody. It bonds and bands everyone else together. So, that used to happen in my family with my late uncle Ray. I can name names now.

You know, take it with a grain of salt. The evening is only going to be a couple of hours’ long, and then it will be next year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And family lasts forever.

STEVEN PETROW: Family lasts forever, exactly. That’s what this holiday is about. It’s about family. Let’s not forget that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Steven Petrow, the civility columnist of The Washington Post.

You can also find other tips online from Mark Shields and David Brooks. That’s on our Web site.

Steven Petrow, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVEN PETROW: Thanks, Hari. Happy Christmas Eve.

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