Talking politics with people who you disagree with is always tricky, but it’s especially hard when those people are your family or closest friends. All too often, problems arise because of how politeness (and impoliteness) operates in interactions.
Everything we do can be more or less polite; the way we move, the way we look at each other and, of course, the words we use. Being polite is not just about saying “please” and “thank you” – indeed, some ways of using these words can be impolite too.
Suppose somebody is swimming too fast for the slow lane in your local pool. There are more or less polite ways to ask them to move and it can be quite hard to know what will work best. A straightforward “you’re in the wrong lane” is less polite than “excuse me, I don’t know if you know about the lanes here. This one is for very slow swimmers.”
In some contexts, though, the more direct form will seem fine and the longer utterance could seem passive-aggressive, or even rude. To get things right, you need to make the right assumptions about your relationship with the person you’re talking to.
Treat everybody like a stranger
We often don’t use markers of politeness when we say things to people we know well. At a family breakfast table, it can be fine simply to say “pass the salt”, without saying things like “excuse me”, “please” and “could you ..?” If a family member asks whether you’d like a cup of tea, it can be fine just to say “no” – but that would be a risky response if the offer came from someone you’d only just met.
When it comes to tricky topics like politics, the absence of such politeness markers is likely to lead to problems. If a stranger expresses a political opinion you don’t agree with, you’d probably think carefully about how to respond. When someone close to you does, you might well just say something direct, such as “that’s rubbish” or “I can’t believe you think that”.
This kind of answer is much more likely to provoke an argument. As well as showing that you don’t agree with them (which can seem impolite in itself), such responses can indicate that you don’t mind contradicting or upsetting them, or that you’re not interested in their point of view. This in turn suggests that you’re not bonding well, and don’t want to be on friendly terms – which is much more upsetting for someone who thinks they are close to you, than it would be to a relative stranger.
Some do’s and don’ts
If you want things to go well when talking about politics around the dinner table, here are some tips about what to do – or avoid doing.
Give the other person time and space to tell you what they think.
Ask them to tell you more about their opinions.
Show that you care about their feelings and that you don’t want to upset them.
Make it clear that you are listening carefully to what they say.
Include politeness markers: “hedging” markers, which reduce the strength of statements, are useful here – for example “actually”, “maybe”, “could be”.
Don’t be too direct or blunt.
Don’t interrupt them.
Don’t suggest that things are simpler than they are, for example, that there is one definite right answer to a question.
Don’t suggest a negative attitude towards them because of their opinions.
There are lots of other things you might think about when discussing tricky topics. We haven’t mentioned the content, for example. One common mistake is to assume that others know things they don’t know, or don’t know things they do (both of which can be really annoying). It might seem like there’s lots to think about, but you don’t need to change drastically to keep things civil with those closest to you. Even little changes can lead to big improvements in how you get along.
Authors of this article, published on 9 April 2018, are:
Billy Clark, Professor of English Language and Linguistics
Graham Hall, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics/TESOL
Sarah Duffy, Senior Lecturer in Languages and Linguistics
– all at Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK