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How To Fight With Your Family At Thanksgiving

Set down the bowl of mashed potatoes. Don’t raise up that drumstick in anger. And, no, we’re pretty sure the solution to getting along with your family this Thanksgiving is not serving a boat of cannabis-infused gravy.

Holidays can be hard. Holidays mixed with politics can be even harder. But here at FiveThirtyEight, there are two things we are grateful for: Politics and data. So when we started thinking about the way an impeachment inquiry, full-swing Democratic primary, and wildly polarized opinion polls might impact the Thanksgiving experiences of our readers, we naturally turned to someone who has collected data on this very problem — Amy Janan Johnson, a professor of communication at the University of Oklahoma.

In 2018, she published a study that documented the experiences of 479 college students who went home for Thanksgiving and had political conversations with their families following the 2016 presidential election. From that, and previous research she’s done, Johnson was able to offer up some tips for navigating your holiday gatherings.

You’re Definitely Not Going To Win That Argument, And That’s OK

The science of persuasion is messy. We know that minds can be changed and, in fact, we know that interpersonal relationships are particularly powerful sources of persuasion. And, yet, Johnson told me, there are serial disagreements that families carry on for years but never resolve. That includes both personal arguments (like leaving the toilet seat up) and political arguments that are really about personal values (like climate change).

Serial arguments can sink relationships, Johnson said. But they don’t have to. “The belief that you can [resolve it] is important,” she told me. So is walking away from the situation feeling like you learned something, or like you taught somebody else something. Also important: Avoiding aggressive behaviors like yelling and name calling. If you argue productively, she told me, you can argue about the same stuff every Thanksgiving for your entire life and still have strong relationships with your sparring partners.

Arguments Go Better In Families That Value Disagreement

Another thing that affects the outcome of holiday arguments on family relationships is whether those families think disagreement is okay. In Johnson’s study of Thanksgiving 2016, she writes about two different kinds of families. The first, called “conversation oriented” families, generally allowed for less conformity — it was normal to talk about controversial issues. They came away from a particularly politically tense year with stronger feelings of closeness than the “conformity oriented” families who generally avoided talking about touchy topics and placed a lot of value on uniformity of thought.

“Families that have a tradition of avoiding politics so they don’t get into arguments got into these arguments because 2016 was such a big deal and surprised everyone,” Johnson said. Avoidance might work out well most of the time. But if that’s your tradition, your family is likely to hit a wall in a tough political climate because you don’t have the experience to feel like disagreement is normal.

If You’re Arguing About Values, Decide Whether Your Values Include Maintaining the Relationship

If you’ve gotten into a political argument at Thanksgiving and not understood why everyone walked away with hurt feelings, then you’re probably making the mistake of thinking of politics as an abstract issue. In reality, a lot of those policy discussions are actually proxies for personal values. And that’s where holidays get messy, Johnson said. “Usually we can keep those separate, but this election was so important and tied to sense of self that families that just usually didn’t argue were arguing about it, and that ended up with negative outcomes for those families,” she told me.

That’s something that ties the science of family arguments into other areas of persuasion research. One of the reasons it’s hard to change people’s minds on climate change, for example, is because the debate isn’t really about scientific facts. It’s about deeply held personal values and identities.

And things get tricky when they get personal. Research on arguments in families is often framed around finding ways to argue while maintaining the strength of the relationship. But there are times when our personal values about a political issue can be more important than our personal values about the relationship. Some of the students Johnson studied, for instance, were kids whose sexual orientation or gender identity made them feel like family members’ political opinions were a direct personal attack. The family members didn’t see it that way. But we can’t always separate the political and personal.

If Your Family Agrees Politically, Talking About Politics Could Actually Be A Bonding Exercise

Because she works at the University of Oklahoma, Johnson’s research includes a lot of conservative students returning home to equally conservative families. And one of the things she’s found is that when family members’ politics are in alignment, a tough political landscape can end up bringing them closer together. “They could go home and be happy and celebrate,” she told me.

Political agreement in families can also affect the dynamics of what is acceptable to talk about at dinner. While families that had a tradition of discussing anything weighty, even controversial subjects, maintained closer ties after Thanksgiving 2016, that’s not necessarily because those families were good at disagreeing, Johnson told me. In a lot of cases, families were comfortable discussing a wide range of subjects because they all assumed they shared the same values. And if you do share basic values, it’s easier to disagree about the details without getting hurt.

But, hey, if all else fails, you can always fall back on serving the weed gravy.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.