Thanksgiving: a time for turkey, togetherness and, for some, turmoil.
In the wake of one of the most divisive periods in recent history, college students are bracing themselves for what may be a tense family reunion for Thanksgiving. The ongoing fight for racial justice, the economic and public safety crisis brought on by the coronavirus and a controversial election season have all driven a wedge between the American public.
Policy issues have turned personal, and for that reason, civil discussions across the dinner table have the potential to heat up very quickly.
Gabriel Castro, a 20-year-old UF political science and European studies sophomore, said he anticipates politics as a topic of conversation when visiting his extended family in Miami, especially given an election President-elect Joe Biden declared as a “battle for the soul of the nation” at a campaign speech in Georgia.
“I am excited to see everyone, but I know politics will be brought up,” he said.
It’s a conversation that – in light of his politics differing from those of his family – Castro isn’t excited to have. But he’s not alone: More Americans have said it’s “stressful and frustrating” to talk about politics since the 2016 election, according to a study from Pew Research Center.
The apprehension can be particularly pronounced for college students.
The college experience brings people of all backgrounds and perspectives together, and research shows this can facilitate an exchange of ideas not found in the homogeneity of a high school or a hometown.
“I feel like meeting a lot of different people during college has really made me more open-minded to a variety of different perspectives,” Castro said.
For some students, these broadened horizons can result in the emergence of a different political outlook than those they were raised with.
Alexandra Cote, a 21-year-old UF biomedical engineering senior, is also used to the conflict. She cited differences in location and educational background as the source of the stark contrast between her and her family’s political stances.
“As our views diametrically oppose, we definitely argue,” she said.
The ideological split many face makes going home for the holidays such a testy endeavor, but luckily, there are ways to subdue the stress these gatherings may supply.
Easing the tension often comes in the form of avoidance, a tactic the Thomas-Kilmann Model notes as one of the five most effective strategies of conflict resolution. Diverting the conversation away from the topic of controversy, or ignoring it entirely, is often used to stop an argument in its tracks.
Nick Manhart, a 25-year-old UF finance sophomore, knows this method well.
His rural Indiana family often discusses politics, and when the topic comes up, he said the best way to get out of the potentially uncomfortable situation is to walk away.
“Luckily we have a big enough family to be able to escape it and go do something else,” Manhart said.
Psychologists have said it’s acceptable, even necessary, to step away from conversations when they begin to feel damaging. While it’s tempting to tackle hot topics, especially with those who harbor separate perspectives, winning an argument often isn’t worth the anger or anxiety that comes with it.
Instead, placating the conversation can be more productive.
Playing peacekeeper may seem like a losing strategy, but yielding to the opposition could prove opportune in retaining relations – especially when your ideological adversary is the one passing you the potatoes from across the table.
Castro said, despite his dissent, he generally finds himself keeping quiet in the face of family political discussions. He said it’s important to him to maintain civility, even at the expense of getting his point across.
“The last thing I want is to have to worry about my family resenting me over policy preferences,” he said.
When approached by particularly passionate relatives, Manhart employs a similar tactic.
“Give them a couple minutes, say ‘Yep’ a couple times, then smile and walk away,” he said. “Usually works out pretty well.”