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Tough conversations at the Thanksgiving table? Here’s how to keep the peace

November 23, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Thanksgiving is a time of celebration, counting blessings and above all, delicious food. But when the whole family comes together, dinner conversation can get tense -- perhaps especially after this year’s divisive election. Here’s some advice on how to talk to each other while gathered around the holiday table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As families and friends gather together for this Thanksgiving holiday, we are aware that this year’s meal may be a more tense and awkward affair than usual because of reaction to the election.

In that spirit, we collected a number of voices, some from the “NewsHour” family, to offer suggestions about how we can talk to each other this year, with civility, sometimes with candor, sometimes with humor, and understanding too.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS, CEO, Define American: I’m looking forward to what I’m sure will be an uncomfortable, but celebratory Thanksgiving.

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: I recommend not talking about politics right away, but having several earlier rounds of conversations. So, the first subject could be things I have always resented about you.

And the next subject could be ways you have wounded me from which I will never recover. And then, by the time you get to politics, it will seem pretty good, actually.

STEVE DEACE, Conservative Radio Show Host: I think civil is not a tone. It’s a temperament. If somebody says to you, hey, I think you’re knuckle-dragging pond scum with a smile on their face, I don’t feel better because they said it nice. I think civility is the motivation.

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: In the middle of a discussion, if another course is coming or another piece of pie is to be had, you might want to try that.

KALI HOLLOWAY, Senior Writer, AlterNet: This is never an easy conversation even in the best of times, right, which is why we’re notoriously bad at having it.

RUTH MARCUS: There is always changing the subject. I understand a lot of people like to talk about sports.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: We gamble. We play poker. It’s a Filipino game called Pusoy. It’s like a Filipino poker. So at least we’re gambling while this is happening. So, it adds levity.

SUSAN DAVID, Author/Psychologist, Harvard Medical School: Nine times out of 10, we find ourselves saying the very thing that we promised that we wouldn’t say, and then you have got a turkey explosion on your hands.

RUTH MARCUS: My solution to that is going to be, like I said, just give them pie.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I don’t think we as a country know how to have conversations anymore.


JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I think what happens is, we all just project. And, instead of listening, like really listening, what we do is, when people talk, we already decide how we’re going to counter what they’re saying.

DAVID BROOKS: I have never lost a friend over politics, and I don’t believe in it. Politics is something we care about, but friendship matters more. Family relationship matters a zillion times more.

KALI HOLLOWAY: These conversations have to start with the sense that you are going to moderate your own behavior, you’re going to listen to what the other person is saying. Form a bond with the person that you’re talking to.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Listening is a radical act. And I could not agree more. And I think, more than anything, we need to listen to each other.

KALI HOLLOWAY: When things get do heated, I think doing what you can to allow that person the space to really speak to who they are, the values that drive them, and not so they can feel demonized or that they have to be defensive.

STEVE DEACE: I can get worked up sometimes. And when I can sense that I’m about to go over the line, I will just say something really dumb or make a really trivial pop culture reference that’s just beyond silly just to sort of pop the pin and let some air out of the room a little bit.

SUSAN DAVID: There’s a lot of research that shows that, when we don’t just say I’m angry or I’m sad, but I feel betrayed, I feel really sad, when we can get more nuanced about our emotions, we tend to do better in these interactions.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Everyone in my family, either — most of whom are either born here and are U.S. citizens or naturalized U.S. citizens. Everyone is kind of panicking and worried. Some of my family members, including my grandmother, thinks I should just go home, home being the Philippines, where I haven’t been since I was 12.

Everybody is going to have something to say, because that’s what family is, and just to kind of nod and smile and, you know, explain, this is my home, and no president can take that away.

KALI HOLLOWAY: I would encourage particularly white people to go home and have these difficult conversations. Don’t just have them in your echo chambers or when you’re around other progressive whites.

You need to take some of those important points home and point out why these issues are important to you. Maybe talk about why it’s personal, talk about friendships that you have with people of color or people who are genuinely afraid and who have been affected by this.

STEVE DEACE: I don’t think anybody should feel like they have some obligation to address these things at the Thanksgiving table. That’s not what Thanksgiving is about. It’s not about you.

It’s not about — that’s — I think people are confusing Thanksgiving with Festivus. All right? This is not about the airing of grievances. This is not about self-actualization or understanding of your viewpoint.

RUTH MARCUS: Whether you supported Hillary Clinton, whether you supported Donald Trump, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican — and I don’t mean to sound too saccharin here, but we are all Americans. We are celebrating a national holiday that should make us all stop and be at least a little bit thankful that we live in this country.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just remember that the people who voted for Trump, if you’re not a Trump voter, in my experience — I have certainly spoken to a lot of them — they were realistic about the guy, and they just wanted a change. They wanted to be heard.

They had sometimes legitimate reasons for voting for a person who I personally disagree with. But — so it’s not like they were signing on for evil. They were taking the vehicle they had to change what they saw as a declining circumstance.

SUSAN DAVID: Instead of feeling that this individual is defined by one vote or one perspective, we can instead bring our values, our intention, our compassion, our love, our kindness to people who we truly value.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our Web site, you can download our guide to civility at the holidays and use it as a place mat at the Thanksgiving table, seriously. Find it at