One of my first observations after immigrating to the U.S. in 2013 is that Americans are allergic to face-to-face conflict. Coming from a Tel Aviv, Israel, home where every family dinner quickly turned to a screaming match about political issues before the main course, “agreeing-to-disagree” was new to me. I quickly learned it’s a necessary skill in the U.S. — especially in family affairs. According to one poll, close to 60% of Americans dread the thought of talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner.
The threat is so ingrained in American culture that every year ahead of Thanksgiving, the internet rolls out guides on how to “survive” the evening.
But in reality, very few Americans actually fight about politics on Thanksgiving. A 2017 HuffPost/YouGov survey found that only 3% of Americans said that they are “very likely,” and 8% are “somewhat likely,” to get into a political argument with family members during Thanksgiving dinner. The result held at 3% for people who expected both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters to attend the dinner, though 20% said they are “somewhat likely” to argue.
One reason might be that people are just cutting dinner short to avoid politics.
In 2017, the Economist created the Pumpkin Index to calculate how far people are willing to travel for Thanksgiving dinner — and how long dinner lasts. The British magazine partnered with Teralytics, an American company that tracks people anonymously through mining mobile phone data (which, side note, is extremely creepy). They found that on Thanksgiving 2016, people who traveled from Democratic counties to less Democratic ones left dinner earlier. Republicans, on the other hand, stayed longer in less Republican counties.
The Pumpkin Index finding that partisanship might make some Democrats skip dessert was confirmed in a more rigorous 2018 study in the journal Science. Researchers combined people’s movement data from SafeGraph — yet another company that anonymously tracks smartphones — with 2016 voting data. Based on the way a precinct voted in the election, they assigned a likelihood that households voted Democrat or a Republican. They found that Thanksgiving dinner was typically about four and a half hours. Families that didn’t vote for the same presidential candidate, however, cut dinner about 30 to 50 minutes short.
Unlike the Pumpkin Index, the Science study found that Republican voters, not Democrats, were more likely to leave earlier. Partisanship made the biggest dent on Thanksgiving dinner length when families traveled from media markets that were saturated with political ads during the election.
That some Americans want to bail early on dinner with someone from the opposite party is disheartening. And not because of generic calls for “civility” saying we should be able to put disagreement aside and enjoy yams together — but because there is nothing wrong with disagreeing and arguing about it. You might even change someone’s mind.
To be fair, it is extremely difficult to get anyone to change their mind about political issues — we are literally wired against it. A neurological study shows that when confronted with challenges to strongly held political beliefs, people feel threatened.
Still, some sort of change is possible.
That’s what University of California researchers found looking at canvassers in Miami. The canvassers asked people who were transphobic to talk about a time they felt that they were judged for being different. By drawing an analogy between that experience and the experience of people who are transgender, they were able to reduce prejudice and increase support of anti-discrimination laws.
Another study of an online Reddit community found that posts that change minds tend to have a calm tone, be longer, and use language that is different than the post that it is responding to — a sign of something new being added to the discussion. It also found that a back-and-forth is productive — to a point. The chance of convincing someone who engages back increases at first, but almost no one changed their mind after five rounds of response.
At a time of intense partisanship, a contentious impeachment inquiry, and the march ahead to 2020, politics will loom over many families’ Thanksgiving. But arguing politics on Thanksgiving doesn’t need to be a drag. Instead of cutting dinner short to avoid it, use the time with family to take on the serious issues confronting the nation. What better time to have a discussion full of long, calm, and empathetic responses then after a good meal?
One limitation of the changed viewpoints you might produce is that they seem to fade away over time. But that’s OK. You will have a chance to argue again in the December holidays.
And if someone loses their cool and the argument escalates — that’s fine, too. You might think you are allergic to conflict, but you will probably be fine, even if you get uncomfortable. Trust me, that was how I felt at every family dinner I ever had.
Brain Trust is a biweekly column that looks at how new research affects Philly. Ideas? Suggestions? Email Abraham Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org.