Ask anyone’s advice on having a good conversation with someone you’ve just met, and they’re sure to advise you to steer clear of the danger topics of politics, religion and Paris Hilton. Well, that’s ok because you’re not really interested in politics anyway and would rather stick to less controversial topics like the health benefits of tea (oh yeah and Scottish independence, right?).
But what if it’s not you making that choice? You’ve just met your girlfriend’s father, and he insists on rabbiting on about how President Obama faked Bin Laden’s death in order to distract from a nose job. How you handle these moments early on could make the difference between a healthy relationship with a new acquaintance or years of awkward water cooler conversation.
Here are a few tips to survive when you’re forced into a conversation about politics and you feel you have little to contribute.
1. Use questions to maintain a stance of polite inquisitiveness. See the conversation as a potential opportunity to learn more about an area you’re not that familiar with. Ask about the background to the issue brought up, and how your conversation partner came to hold their views on this topic. People often enjoy explaining things that they feel they know a lot about – we’re all flattered to be considered experts!
2. While shifting the discussion on to a different topic may cover up your lack of knowledge, you may inadvertently annoy a person who sees exploring political persuasion as an important part of getting to know someone. Focus instead on keeping the conversation on a positive theme to avoid the risk of an argument: what needs to change in the country rather than what’s gone wrong, or how current problems may be the beginning of a move towards a solution that all sides can agree is desirable.
3. You don’t need to read the political stories in the news every day, but make sure you at least know the basics. Which political party is in power, who the main figures in government are and what are the main ideological debates of the moment (hint: there’s been a lot going on in Scotland over the past few weeks!). You can get this sort of factual information quite easily from the main news websites – but avoid the websites of the political parties themselves, as they’re often more focused on attacking their opponents or describing bland policies designed not to offend anyone, which tells you little about the real divisions.
4. Know your own stance. You don’t need to bring out the megaphone and chain yourself to the nearest tree, but get to know where your own politics lie in terms of the political parties and some major issues. A great way to find this out is by taking a political quiz. ISideWith has US, UK and Australian versions which will prompt you to think about your views on the major issues of debate in those countries, and then try to match you with the major political parties.
5. The main reason people suggest not bringing up politics when you first meet someone is that it can lead to someone making a profound judgement about your character before they know your other strengths and have built a relationship with you. Therefore, it may be best not to disagree outright with the person if they’re expressing opinions that are very unfamiliar to you. Chances are they’re far more attached to these views and possibly more informed. Over time, your relationship will develop to the point you feel more comfortable challenging that person.
What are your experiences when drawn into unfamiliar topics of conversation?