How to Talk Politics and Religion at the Dinner Table

At some point, we’ve all come across the advice that politics and religion are no-go areas for dinner table conversation. Presumably because people feel their views on these topics make up their core values: a self-definition of ‘who we are’, and therefore subjects people can get quite defensive about. The scope for divergent opinion is wide.

We’re drawn to those who share our core values and repelled by those who don’t, so the theory goes, so should avoid talking about our beliefs in social settings so as to minimise the high risk of disagreement.

There are a number of problems with this train of thought. Politics or religion could just happen to be your life’s passion. If you grew up talking politics at the dinner table, you feel comfortable continuing to do so. Why should you suppress your values and interests, just to make others feel comfortable?

Perhaps you study or work in politics or religion and enjoy discussing the latest developments. And even if you don’t, there’s a good chance you think about these things and are interested in what others think, too. Are sitting in silence or sharing Katie Price’s latest advice on achieving domestic bliss really viable alternatives?

Talking through your beliefs with others of similar or differing persuasion can be a great way to expand your horizons and develop your views. Discussion can build your confidence in expressing beliefs that had before now languished in the back of your mind, helping you to think and have respect for your own ideas.

Listening to what others have to say can mean discovering holes in your ideas that you’d like to explore further – and which could even lead to a future change in political allegiance or religion. Some research has suggested that children who grow up in politically engaged households are more likely to deviate from their parents’ views later in life.

dinner table large
Photo Credit: Walter Benson via Compfight

For the law or political philosophy student, explaining your work to others can be a great way to test whether you’ve really understood it, while also helping to move away from a purely theoretical approach. Being aware of and accounting for perspectives other than your own is all part of being a good citizen – and being able to write a good essay!

Here are some tips we’ve put together for enjoying a good discussion of politics or religion at the dinner table whilst maintaining your relationships:

 

1. Define the outcome you want

Decide at the outset what the purpose of your discussion is going to be. Even if you’re not the one starting a discussion on Israel, if you rise to the bait you’re just as responsible! Is a debate just about you blowing off steam or looking for an excuse to get angry with someone that you don’t like for other reasons?

Are you trying to find out more about someone or a topic, or to change their mind? Be realistic in your expectations – how easy is it for others to change your own mind? How important is the relationship to you? Knowing the answers to these questions before you open your mouth can help ensure you enjoy a good discussion rather than a heated argument you end up regretting later that night.

 

2. You don’t have to ‘win’

The kitchen is not a student debating society: there are no judges totting up the points or big audience waiting to vote on who they think put forward the best argument. Chances are you’re not going to change someone’s mind, so far better to focus on another goal as discussed in point 1 above.

 

3. Stop constantly thinking of what you’re going to say next

Take the time to listen instead. This doesn’t mean just keeping your mouth closed and looking at the person speaking, but asking thoughtful questions that seek to further understand their point of view. Try paraphrasing the main points a person’s just made, and connect it with why they might have reached that point of view.

Avoid rude behaviour like shaking your head, rolling your eyes or sighing, which are more likely to harden the other person’s stance.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway

 

4. Make it about the views expressed

Not the person. By all means attack an opinion, but be mindful of language such as “you’re wrong” or “that’s typical of you to say” which just makes another person feel like it’s personal. On the flip side, maintain the moral high ground by not reacting to someone who does this to you.

A side point to this is that you should focus on what a person’s actually said, rather than other things you assume they also believe. People are far more complicated than a simple left-right categorisation.

 

5. Have a cut-off point

It takes two to have a conversation. You can end it any time, and allowing a heated debate to continue makes you just as responsible for the outcome. This may mean being strong enough to accept not having the last word.

Ending a discussion abruptly can be quite awkward if you’ve been on the same topic for some time. So it’s wise to have a cut-off point and some alternative topics of decent conversation up your sleeve. Really listen to what another person is saying and you’ll find there are all sorts of words they use that are potential routes to new branches of conversation.

 

What are your tips when mixing politics and food? Is it OK to discuss religion over dinner? Let us know in the comments below.

Author: radicalteatowel

This is the blog of The Radical Tea Towel Company. We'll be writing about politics, inspiration and tea. Check out our website, www.radicalteatowel.com , when you get a moment, for some unique political gift ideas.

4 thoughts on “How to Talk Politics and Religion at the Dinner Table”

  1. Great blog post! Very intresting, It is so relatable to my family, because we don’t always listen to each other and let each other speak! It says ‘children are most likely to have their parents views’ but having a right wing dad and a left wing mum makes it hard to know what to believe. Whenever I see my dad he always tries to convince me the exact oposite of what my mum says!

    I don’t really enjoy discussing politics if it involves People constantly interrupting each other, 1) because people can’t explain their argument fully 2) the person who interrupted hasn’t heard the full argument. Although not interrupting can be really difficult, I think it’s something that should be a rule for members of parliament and people like that. Because If people just interrupt the whole time, no one gets anywhere with their side of the debate.

    I also believe everyone needs to have a chance to speak; sometimes I find myself wanting to say things for ages but then I forget.

    But all else otherwise, I’m all in favour of discussing politics-because it’s broadens your knowledge on these topics. Sometimes I discuss politics with my dad’s side of the family, and it really does open your mind to all the different views from different people. If only we had conservatives or UKIP people in our family, because then we could have a really contrasting debate! Probably lots of arguements though…

  2. “Some research has suggested that children who grow up in politically engaged households are more likely to deviate from their parents’ views later in life” – perhaps why bigots and fanatics would rather mealtimes were poker-faced silence contests.

  3. I do sometimes find it difficult to not interrupt people when they are talking at length. There can be several reasons for this:

    1. Like Maria said, I do worry about forgetting something I wanted to say, particularly if it is something that I think is particularly relevant and the other person is speaking at length.

    2. Sometimes it is difficult getting a word in edge ways with some people. If you don’t interrupt you can find you don’t get a chance to speak.

    3. Some people let you think they’ve stopped speaking when they haven’t – they give confusing verbal signals, like pausing for too long for example. I read somewhere that Mrs Thatcher used to do this, and so she had lots of opportunities to berate her listeners for inadvertently interrupting her.

    4. One of the main reasons I find myself interrupting is when the other person has said something that is incorrect and they continue to base their argument around this inaccuracy. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to interrupt and point out the error if they are using it as the pivot on which their argument is based!

    Anyway, some advice about how to avoid the temptation to interrupt, and at the same time not let the discussion run away without you, would be very helpful.

    Anne

  4. We humans like to think we are rational but in fact are anything but. Research suggests that, rather than leading to any change in views, debating a point generally entrenches both sides, making them less likely to change their minds on the subject in future. Even concrete evidence against your point of view is likely simply to reinforce your existing opinion when presented, the exact opposite of what one might reasonably assume it would do.

    Actual change in opinion, when it happens, is more likely to be driven by personal research of the opposing arguments (which we can then credit ourselves with) and by passive peer and social pressure (i.e. everyone’s saying UKIP are nutjobs so perhaps I really shouldn’t vote for them after all). You’re probably more likely to convince your friends and family to change their minds, not by challenging their beliefs, but by *acting as if they already agree with you*.

    Does this mean that argument and debate is pointless? Not at all. By having to make your case it forces you to better think through your own arguments and discover what you really believe, but, more importantly, *why* you believe it. Moreover, it can be a means to convince third parties of your point of view witnessing their debate, especially if the other side comes accross as unreasonable (irrespective of the logic of their arguments) – it may seem obvious but this is of course the point of public debates: Clegg vs. Farage has nothing to do with changing the minds of Liberal or UKIP supporters.

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