The Etiquette of Talking Politics

It used to be impolite to talk about politics or religion at the dinner table. Well, times are a-changin', so what are the rules of the road?
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Not everyone can pick a fish fork out of the cutlery line up, but most of America made it through childhood with a few ground rules of inviolable etiquette in place: say please and thank you; don't chew with your mouth open; cut the price tag off a gift; if you can't say anything nice, talk about the weather. Just don't, for goodness sake, ever talk about politics or religion at the dinner table!

Well, the times, they are a-changin'. The elections are everywhere, therefore talking politics is happening everywhere from boardrooms to family dinners. I talked about it myself with the new website Citizen Jane Politics. The fact is, it's rare that etiquette disappears altogether (though I'll grant you the chaperone, abandoned by Emily Post herself in her 1946 edition of her classic tome Etiquette). Instead, etiquette adapts. People want to talk about the elections that are going on, but there are immediate red flags: How do I do this without getting myself into hot water? That is essentially an etiquette question: What are the rules of the road if we decide to engage in political conversation? Here are a few quick tips from a FOX & Friends segment I did over the weekend:

1. Just the facts, ma'am. Stick to discussions of general knowledge: What is a candidate's stance? What did they say in the debate? What are the latest headlines? Stay away from anything too personal, opinionated or judgmental: Who are you voting for? I hate the (insert political party here)! How on earth could you support that candidate?!

2. Have an exit strategy. It takes two to argue, and if you choose not to participate the other person will run out of steam fast. Have a stock answer ready to get you out of a heated conversation: I guess we just don't see eye-to-eye; or: I'll have to consider that; or: For me, it's private.

3. What's your position? Think about what your purpose is for the conversation. Are you there to learn? Are you there to try to change somebody's mind? If you're going to do that, I would strongly suggest doing it in a respectful manner. Or are you just there to vent, to dump on somebody? That's neither productive nor helpful to your own cause.

4. Know when to fold 'em. There are still times I'd strongly advise avoiding political topics, especially if it's liable to get heated. Weddings and holidays are risky; they are memorable events, and you don't want the memories to be bad. When meeting new people it's best not to broach such a personal subject--think your girlfriend's parents or a new client.

5. Assume nothing. No matter how perceptive you think you are, you can't possibly know what someone else's personal beliefs are. Don't presume that someone agrees with you--or disagrees, for that matter.

So what's left to talk about? Lots. We all know how lucky we are to live in a society with free elections, and political discourse is central to making good decisions in the voting booth. The best political conversation is one where the participants can ask each other questions to learn more. Asking to know more doesn't mean you have to change your mind--but hey, you never know!

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