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.
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.