Sage: The art of (not) talking

about politics in civil society

Dear Sage:


   My wife and I were at a party at our community’s senior center a few days ago, hoping to meet new people. At one point we introduced ourselves to another couple who looked friendly and who had been chatting away effortlessly with several others. The first question the husband asked was which candidate we were supporting in the presidential election. I lost all good sense and blurted out the name, whereupon the wife, clearly incredulous, said, ‘Boy, you two must be idiots!’ They then turned and walked away. Can you please advise on whether – and how – to discuss politics with friends, acquaintances and others you have just met? We felt insulted, treated as if we were skunks in a wedding chapel, and don’t want to go through this again.

                                                                                                          – PO’d in PA


Dear PO’d:


   This other couple appears to be – how shall the Sage say it – idiots. Also morons, imbeciles, jerks, nitwits, twits, dorks, pinheads and dunces – with the emotional IQ of a Kumquat. But perhaps that’s unfair to Kumquats.

   It was absurd for them to have chosen such a sensitive introduction topic and to have summarily walked away. It is possible that their world revolves around an unrivaled passion for politics, of course. And it is also possible that this is their baseline criterion for friendships: If you disagree, you will not be part of their circle, which, as a general requirement in the world of humans, would be a lamentable constraint. We encounter many such people – rigid, uncompromising blockheads who think their beliefs are right and anyone who disagrees belongs on Mars. These are the wonderful people we would do well to treat like rattlesnakes.

   The Sage will also humbly suggest that perhaps you would have done better to have thought about your response for a second or two and then said something like, ‘Wow – we’re starting out with the easy stuff, eh? I make it a practice not to discuss politics with anyone but myself!’ Nevertheless, you took a risk and said it, as many would, so let’s explore the sensibilities involved in sharing our beliefs.

   First, people exhibit varying degrees of interest in politics. Some are crazed and obsessed. Others are moderately attentive. And then, of course, you have those who are apathetic or unfazed, preferring to become mesmerized instead by Honey Boo Boo or, worse, the Kardashians.

   The level of engagement can dictate a framework for discussions about elections, or whether to ignore the topic altogether. And there have been conflicting studies concluding either that 1. You should stay away from such discussions with friends whom you know are at the opposite end of the spectrum because you risk stirring hostility and enmity and 2. That such exchanges can be enlightening and can deepen a friendship. How’s that for definitive and well-reasoned concordance?

   And then there was a study done nearly a decade ago at Boston College (granted, politics may not have been nearly as polarizing back then) concluding that while we tend to prefer, and place a high value on, friendships with those who “share similar ideological identities,” other characteristics mattered more – trustworthiness, dependability, cooperation and an easygoing manner, for instance. The researchers said that “these factors may fully diminish the divisive effects of ideological differences.” They also said that relationships between conservatives and liberals can help people find common ground (let us assume that these conversations occur without weapons).

    The Sage, while vacationing a couple of years ago, ended up sitting at a table next to three Israeli couples on a cruise ship. They represented vastly different views but were able to kid each other and to offer explanations so that the others could understand their perspectives. They chatted genially, and without rancor, and remarked that the U.S. had become much more divided, that they were able to talk without the animosity that defines many of our conversations. Pretty cool, huh?

   So, given the current circumstances in our country, the Sage would postulate that we should view other people as more than political beings. They may be generous, inspirational, supportive, funny, honest, ethical, non-judgmental, respectful and may turn out to be the ones who are there when life presents its most challenging circumstances. Will it ever really matter who they voted for? Will it matter that their upbringing and lifetime experiences – political genetics, if you will – led to certain beliefs that may conflict with your own? Granted, it’s a little more involved than which brand of ketchup or peanut butter you prefer, but any such differences need not define our relationships.

   Many of us are passionate about various issues and candidates. But if we make it a goal never to let these convictions become so intense as to jeopardize a relationship – in other words, to use logic and prudence to avoid reaching a boiling point – our friendships will more likely endure. Good idea to take a deep breath, avoid blurting out something hurtful, and later, if we still feel a need to get an issue off our chest, calmly explain our position.

   Psychology Today referenced Mary Matalin and James Carville, a nationally prominent couple who work on different sides in national political campaigns, and said that they embrace “shared values, including respect for one another and for others,” and that these traits supersede their political positions and “protect their relationship.”

   Now if you think it’s a good idea to discuss certain topics with others simply so that you can see the other side – and this can, on occasion, turn out to be a rewarding experience – try to view it as an educational fact-finding mission. Don’t practice what is known as “blocked listening,” which means you hear what you want to hear – usually the words that will prompt you to disagree and start a war. You really have to listen intently and process the information with deference. Don’t turn this into a cage fight, no matter how tempted you may be!

   The Sage himself has a best friend who is at the opposite end of the spectrum. We exchange emails that bolster our positions but will never persuade the other to surrender. Yet all of this is done with humor and in a way that goes out of its way to treat the other person with dignity while (usually) taking all precautions not to foment animosity. The friendship has lasted 25 years, and has centered on spirituality, child-rearing, personal and family values and Corvettes, which only the other guy is rich enough to have owned.

   The Sage hopes that PO’d in PA can glean an idea or two from this column. Our relationships are different with each person we know. Sometimes politics should be off the table … with others we can have a healthy exchange and learn something by discussing an issue – not attacking the other person’s beliefs, or worse, the person himself/herself … sometimes we can kid each other and view politics as just one aspect of life that should not be a deal-breaker … and then again politics may be irrelevant with others.

   Regardless, all the time, we should speak with an even temper, treat the other person with respect, and stay away from those who define us solely by who we voted for rather than who we really are as human beings—let alone treat us like skunks in a wedding chapel.

   And in any event, VOTE!!!

   Humbly Yours,

   The Sage