How to Talk Politics Over Dinner

Dear Helena,

The other day the topic of Sarah Palin came up at a dinner party and one of the guests started expressing opinions that struck me as the exact opposite of true. We got into a fight that ended with me saying, “Jesus, where do you get this nonsense from? It’s like you live in Upside-Down World!”

There was an awkward silence, which the host tried to fill by chirping, “Who wants dessert?” I felt like I ruined the dinner party, but I couldn’t help it. This woman made my blood boil. If you and a fellow guest disagree about politics, how can you stop the discussion from getting heated? Or should you just avoid the topic altogether?
—Too Angry for Dessert

Dear Too Angry for Dessert,

In former days, an etiquette maven might have declared politics to be off-limits for dinner-party conversation (along with religion and probably money and sex). But you can debate politics without anyone storming out before dessert. Here’s how to keep it civil.

Watch the booze. As with any challenging social situation—like a business dinner or Thanksgiving with the in-laws—drinking just the right amount is essential. When debating politics with the enemy, one or two drinks (depending on your tolerance) will mellow you out and make you less quick to judge. But if you drink more, your emotions may take over. Next thing you know, you’re red in the face and telling the other person she lives in “Upside-Down World.”

Pause before responding. When someone is in the opposite political camp as you, it’s hard not to lash out. The other day my husband and I were having drinks at a friend’s house when she mentioned her passion for a former British prime minister. I was brought up to think this person was the devil incarnate, and I barked out something to that effect. The evening ended shortly after. Instead of doing what I did, give yourself a moment or two to let your reflexive anger subside. It may calm you to focus on the food in your mouth or the wine you’re drinking.

Don’t assume everyone shares your views. Sophia Raday is a former peace activist who married a gun-toting cop and Army Reserve colonel. (Her memoir on the topic, Love in Condition Yellow, will be published by Beacon Press in April 2009.) Raday says that during the year she spent living on an Army base with her husband, the people around her spoke as if she shared their support of President Bush. She did not.

Be curious. Raday, a veteran of many heated dinnertime discussions, advises: “Try to get past rhetoric and down to individual stories.” In other words, don’t frame the discussion as a for/against debate. After all, you’re unlikely to change someone’s political affiliation in time for dessert. Instead, try to find out what shaped his or her perspective. You may uncover some interesting anecdotes.

End on a positive note. Tell the other person he’s given you food for thought or promise to look up a newspaper article, speech, or statistic that he’s mentioned. Whatever you say, don’t close with, “Let’s agree to disagree.” A friend of mine who is a political aide in DC says: “There is no more disagreeable way to end a conversation. ... You might as well say, ‘Let’s agree never to talk to each other again.’”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.