Five Ways to Keep Peace Around the Holiday Dinner Table

Family around the Thanksgiving table
William FitzGerald from Rutgers-Camden shares tips about how to navigate the holiday season in a divided political culture.

William FitzGerald, an associate professor at Rutgers-Camden, offers advice to survive the holidays in a divided political climate

The holidays, coming on the heels of the divisive midterm elections, are fraught for many families gathering around the dinner table. With political discussions at a fever pitch online and through social media, this year might still be challenging. 

William FitzGerald, associate professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden, a scholar of rhetoric who discusses civility and argument, says the pandemic and greater distance from family and friends may have sharpened our awareness of how precious life is and the need to recognize what ties us together despite political differences. Still, he shares tips about how to navigate the holiday season in a divided political culture.

Here is what FitzGerald – who has had to learn what to say and not say himself – says is the secret to enjoying nonpolitical holidays:

Remember why you are there

To celebrate our blessings as individuals and as a nation despite our differences of opinion. What unites us is greater than what divides us. It is helpful to remember, too, that holidays are a call to come together – official days off from partisan politics.

Are you spoiling for a fight? 

Ahead of time, reflect on and decide what you want. Are you spoiling for a fight, even if it means ruining the holiday for both hosts and guests? If you are the host, how do you wish to be hospitable and welcoming? If you are a guest, what does it mean to be gracious in someone's home? Someone will probably provoke you, intentionally or otherwise, so it is wise to be prepared.

Look for common ground

Speak about the election in terms of shared hopes and interests rather than identity politics. Express commonplace sentiments such as being thankful the election is behind us for a while; and, perhaps, the new congress/governor will be successful.

Resist snark

Refrain from gloating (if your candidate won) or scapegoating (if your candidate lost). Above all, do not blame your relatives for things politicians have done or demand that they take responsibility for a particular policy. The holiday dinner table is not an extension of the comment section of your favorite blog or news outlet.

Avoid Speechmaking

Because politics will come up, ask questions; avoid speechmaking. Take an active interest in what others think rather than mount counterarguments (especially "what about..." retorts). This strategy can defuse tense situations when someone wants to start an argument.

Those who want to avoid politics altogether can discuss kids, travel, favorite shows and movies and special family moments. Forget spontaneity, FitzGerald says. Prepare for a positive experience.

“There’s nothing foolproof here,” says FitzGerald. “But good will and focus on the reasons, personal and civic, that bring us together for the holiday season will give us reason to be thankful and not just because they're over.’’