That’s according to author Jeanne Martinet, an expert in the art of conversation, who says this divide pushing us away from each other is also making us less civil. In years past, the prospect of gathering with family members and friends was enough to make anyone stress out. But now, with divergent ideas about vaccines, politics and how to stay safe and sane in the age of Covid, the family dinner table has become even more of a minefield.
Martinet, whose most recent book is Mingling with the Enemy, has some advice for how to avoid tricky subjects over turkey and trimmings. Her first book, The Art of Mingling — which Martinet says she wrote “as kind of a lark” in 1992 — became a huge hit, landing her on the Today Show, where host Katie Couric revealed even she could relate to the fear of not being able to work a crowd.
Nearly three decades later, the stakes feel even higher.
“Right now, we’re so divided, which is my impetus for writing the new book,” says Martinet. “Everybody is addicted to outrage. I thought it was important to give people some tips on how to keep us talking together. Not necessarily about politics, but to keep us civil.”
Here’s an edited and condensed version of her advice, in her own words.
1. Start With a Clean State
“Unlike when you walk into a room full of strangers, with your family you already know the lay of the land. You know where the pitfalls are. This can also give you a great deal of anxiety. Try and start from zero. Erase what happened last time you were with this particular family gathering; maybe you got into a horrible argument, or somebody said something hurtful to you. Try as much as possible to not start from the end of that, but to start with a clean slate.”
2. Change the Subject
“Instead of talking about climate change, you can ask: ‘What was the biggest snow you remember when you were a kid?’ Instead of talking about the minimum wage increase, you can ask: ‘Do you remember what you first earned when you first started working?’ Then you’re talking about the ice cream shop you worked at in your childhood.”
3. Focus on Non-Controversial Stuff (Like Furry Friends)
“You can talk about trivia, things that you read in the paper. TV is a good one — since we’ve all been quarantining for 18 months, everybody talks about what their favorite show is. Ask for help instead of discussing beliefs. If someone starts going on about what they believe about something, just say, ‘Oh, by the way, speaking of the internet, I’m looking for a new computer. Can you give me some advice on what computer I should buy?’ Also, family pets are incredibly great diversionary things. Everybody loves their pets, and you can just turn your attention to the dog and how fabulous he is.”
4. Not at the Dinner Table, Please
“If you really feel like you must engage with a family member about a political issue that’s important to you, don’t do it at the family dinner table with everybody watching. Everybody’s emotions are heightened then. I call it divide and conquer: you wait until you and that person are going off to the grocery store together, or you’re going to go collect wood, and broach the subject there — if you must.”
5. Vexed by the Vax
“All the discussions about how you’re going to have your celebration as far as social distancing, etc., should be done before. You don’t want to show up and have this very fraught conversation about whether you’re eating inside or outside, or so-and-so isn’t vaccinated. You want to get those settled before your actual family gathering. I always recommend trying to have these conversations on the phone rather than by email. (How to mingle with the enemy online is a whole chapter in my book).”
6. Find a Common Enemy
“If somebody starts talking about Congress or some politician they hate, you can try to talk about something you both can bitch about — a difficult client that you have if it’s a work party, or the garbage trucks are too loud.”
7. Accept That You’re Living in Different Realities
“If you have very fanatical relatives, there are diversionary techniques. When somebody is really very far off from what you feel is reality, the only thing really to do is to change the subject. You can’t engage with people who are brainwashed into thinking insane things. Sadly, you’re not going — at least not at one dinner — to change people’s minds.”
8. Don’t Drink and Proselytize
“I love drinking martinis myself, but alcohol is not a salve. It’s an accelerant when it comes to arguments, especially political arguments.”
9. Put Facebook Away
“Don’t surf on the internet for six hours right before you go to dinner. You’ll bring a lot of baggage with you. The hashtag mentality is a lot of what’s wrong with our lack of ability to speak.”
10. Stay Human
“As much as possible, we need to see each other as human beings. Because we are all human beings. Even though some people have been, I think, led astray, they may think I’m the one who has been led astray. Our only hope is to continue to engage with each other on some level. Otherwise, what will happen?”