The dread of ugly confrontations with family during holiday get-togethers has become so widespread, it’s almost a phobia. Most families have tension and conflict even without politics, but now that the country is so politically divided, it’s more likely than ever that family members are going to be on opposite sides of one or more of the issues. While finding common ground should be easier within families—because of shared personal history—unfortunately, the 24-7 media cycle, social media, and the continual erosion of fact-based reality are causing an ideological rift among many of us that is getting as wide as an ocean.
Of course, since many of us are only video chatting with relatives this year, we won’t be screaming at each other across the dinner table. But remember, just because you are gathering virtually doesn’t mean that Uncle Charlie can’t still bring up the “fraudulent election” at every turn. He simply won’t be able to physically throw the saltshaker at anyone this year. Here are some strategies that can help make your Zoom meal a more palatable one.
1. Do some pre-Zoom prep.
Have a family bonding tool at the ready. Email your relatives in advance and tell them that what you would really like this year is for everyone to show their favorite family photograph, a picture that can be held up to the camera. This could be something from your childhood (that time your two-year-old brother got cake in his hair) or from a past holiday celebration (grandma making a funny face). Whatever the picture is, it should be something that makes everyone laugh. Then, if the conversation should get uncomfortable, you just say, “Hey time for the pictures!” You could also have some other positive memory sharing technique ready: Reminisce about a favorite childhood trip or a longstanding family joke.
2. Set the right tone at the beginning.
If possible, don’t log onto the Zoom anticipating trouble. Try to forget the last fight you had about health care. This can be difficult, I know; sometimes the hurt and fear from what you have perceived as an attack will stay with you and cause you to expect the same thing to happen and/or want a do-over. That very anticipation could make a fight more likely. Don’t assume an ugly conversation is inevitable.
Once you are all online, don’t start the conversation with current events or politics. If you do that your Zoom is doomed. Begin with talking about the food everyone is having or how people’s homes are decorated. Of course, we don’t want to end up only talking about superficial things, when we are all missing connecting with each other so much. But the initial tone you set at your gathering will carry throughout if you are lucky.
3. Be alert for surprise attacks.
Most people do not plan on engaging in political argument; we know better. But these days, almost all subjects lead to politics, and explosions can erupt from the most unlikely tidbits of conversation. Have fun, but stay alert. You never know how a political argument might emerge. Be ready with a diversionary tactic like a change of subject. Offering complements is also a good go-to salve. Interject with a comment about how good someone’s hair looks or how beautiful their sweater is. Remember, when there’s a firestorm brewing, positive energy is the best flame retardant.
4. Let go of the desire to be proven right.
This is just not the place for it, no matter how right you know you are. If you really want to talk about politics and you think everyone is reasonable enough to proceed, remember never to concentrate on winning or changing someone’s mind, because in these situations this will rarely happen. Instead your aim should be a conversation in which each party understands more fully why the other person holds a given belief. This can be challenging because our beliefs are important to us. Just remember that this is not the UN; it’s a holiday meal. Try to listen to each other. Learning to listen is like learning a martial art—you have to practice, but it’s worth it. Your relationships will be stronger for it.
5. Take advantage of video chat technology.
The fact that Zoom only enables one audio signal at a time can be seen as a detriment to organic group discussion. It makes everything more like a meeting, because only one person can speak at any given time, and while they are speaking, you can’t hear reactions from anyone else. However, in some situations, this aspect of video chat technology can actually help. At a face-to-face family get-together, things will often devolve into many people yelling at once. On a Zoom get-together, this kind of free-for-all is not possible. And when your crazy cousin starts ranting about her latest conspiracy theory, it’s fairly easy for someone to interrupt, to start talking over her in order to change the subject. Once another person has the “floor” (the screen), your cousin may still be talking, but no one can hear her, and there is less chance of escalation.
When all else fails, when it seems as though the conversation is headed for total disaster, you can always use the age-old standby: “I’m sorry, Mom, you guys seem to be frozen. I think our signal must be weak. We’re going to sign off.” Or you can just wait five minutes and then log back in, hoping that by that time the storm will have passed.
You only have two choices when it comes to your holiday family Zoom: either avoid the subject of politics altogether or commit to conversing about politics with love and mutual respect. It’s hard enough for us to be forced to interact through our computer screens instead of in person. This is not the time to win a debate. This is the time for us to reach through cyberspace, figuratively hold each other’s hands, and get through this challenging time together.
Jeanne Martinet is author of The Art of Mingling, and has been featured in The New York Times, Salon, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. She has shared her humor and mingling know-how on hundreds of TV and radio shows, including NBC’s The Today Show, and NPR’s Morning Edition