Sage Advice: Practice "Pass the Politics" at Family Gatherings

By Amy Dickinson | October 30th, 2019

How to avoid talking politics at family functions


Family Talking Politics Image

Dear Amy: At a family gathering, I completely lost it when my brother-in-law started spouting birther conspiracies.

I called him a racist effing moron and stormed out.

I know I did not handle this well. But what else could I do?

I try not to talk politics with that side of the family, but I believe racism must not go unchallenged. Should I apologize for my heated response?

– Not (Usually) a Hothead

Dear Hothead: Let’s stipulate that your assessment of your brother-in-law might be 100 percent correct. However. You should have read the room (likely crowded with family and, I assume, children), and chosen to behave better than he.

As we enter the holiday gathering season, many families (including my own) are facing these relational challenges. It is a huge lift to gather with family members who have extremely divergent political views — and yes, some people seem emboldened to express genuinely bizarre — and hateful — beliefs.

Ideally, we would all be able to gather as families and engage in spirited but respectful conversations regarding the news of the day.

I don’t know any family that actually manages to do this (including my own).

Your brother-in-law spouted a demonstrably false conspiracy theory directed at our former president. You responded not by attacking his views and debunking them, but by attacking him personally and directly, using a profanity, and then storming out.

In leaving the way you did, you turned the conversation away from him and his obnoxious beliefs, and onto you and your obnoxious behavior.

Who do you think really “won” that encounter? He baited the hook and you bit.

Must you tolerate the intolerable? Absolutely not. In the future, shut (or shout) this down, but don’t surrender your own humanity.

In terms of apologizing, I do think you should at least acknowledge your behavior: “Donald, I realize I blew up the last time I saw you. Your views are deeply insulting, but I responded by attacking you, when I should have attacked your point of view.”

I suggest holiday hosts this year might want to announce a moratorium on talking about topics that might lead to this sort of exchange (are there any topics left?).

I assume that many families will have gaps at their holiday table, as some people will choose to stay away, rather than face the sort of scene you’ve described.

Here’s a quote I saw today from the Dalai Lama: “A fundamentally positive approach is to take account of the oneness of humanity. Dividing the world into ‘us and them’ might have worked in the past, but it doesn’t work anymore. We have to talk through our problems with our opponents, thinking of them as fellow human beings.”


In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2019 by Amy Dickinson

More from Boomer