I’m talking about extreme social conservatives, and no matter how well you try to insulate yourself, you are going to have to talk to one at some point during this increasingly contentious election season. Here are some tips:
1. Pick your battles
This is the overriding principle of talking to someone who thinks that Medicare is a Communist plot to euthanize senior citizens. Well-reasoned arguments rarely work on these folks. (It’s like trying to teach a cat to waltz: it’s a waste of your time, and it just annoys the cat.) If we’re talking about a temporary acquaintance or a grocery cashier, ask yourself, “Is it worth the bother?” You’ll probably want to steer the conversation toward simple inanities—like how dessert tastes good.
2. Don’t fight on Facebook
By the same token, no one’s opinion was ever changed by a comment on a Facebook post. If outrageous “Where’s Obama’s birth certificate?” posts by someone you barely knew in high school are driving you crazy, don’t counter with “Where are Mitt’s tax returns?” Unfriend her. Save your sanity.
3. Don’t talk about the weather
The weather used to be a safe subject, but when you’re dealing with people who think global warming was made up by liberals as a weapon in their war on Christmas, that’s out. Same goes for the price of gas (it used to be so easy to chat with a distant relative about gas prices in various places we’d been recently). If you want inanity in these divided days, you have to find widely agreed-on topics: “desserts I’ve enjoyed,” for instance.
4. Facts will probably not help you
Oh, liberals and their facts! So cute. As Paul Ryan knows, it’s not what you say but how you say it! OK, so your Aunt Mavis insists on talking about how Sarah Palin is right about how the Gulf oil spill was the fault of extreme environmentalists, and there is no way to avoid her. Just try to remember that Tea Party conservatives take the idea of equality too far, to a place where ignorance is equal to knowledge, and where your facts are no better or worse than a bunch of made-up stuff that they heard on Fox.
It’s maddening, but if you think facts and empirical data will help you, you’re setting yourself up for heartbreaking frustration.
5. Stay calm and appeal to their emotions
If you’re talking to someone who isn’t swayed by facts, focus instead on stories he can identify with. This is how we’ve swayed more people toward supporting marriage equality. Parsing legal judgments or measuring the positive economic impacts of same-sex weddings? A dead-end. A love story about a lesbian couple who’s been together 45 years? That can work. If it’s your parents who are on the wrong side of the marriage debate, promise that your same-sex marriage will result in grandbabies. Grandbabies solve a lot of problems.
6. Let them speak—and listen!
Sometimes there’s no avoiding a political conversation: You’re seated next to your Republican cousin at your niece’s graduation, and he’s going to educate you on why Romney-Ryan is right for the USA. First step: Listen. As we saw with the national Chick-fil-A drama, many social conservatives think that your expressing a contradictory opinion somehow infringes on their “freedom of speech.” (Besides it’s always helpful to know what the opposition is thinking.)
So listen and keep your cool. Discussing politics at the dinner table or other social occasions is not bad manners—shouting and name-calling are. If you and your cousin can talk politics without doing that, you’re fine.
7. Know when to agree to disagree—and when to follow up
There are signs that a conversation with a social conservative has reached its logical end: one of you keeps repeating himself, for instance, or you want to start pulling your eyebrows out, hair by hair. When you reach this point, be the bigger person. Smile sweetly and say, “Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. So … had any good desserts lately?”
Of course, some statements are so homophobic, racist, or generally hateful (and “social conservatives” have been saying a lot of them in public lately) that they’re immediate conversation killers. In those instances, you’re within your rights to say “I will not listen to talk like this” before turning an icy cold shoulder.
But if you feel you’ve made progress in the conversation—and that maybe, just maybe, you’ve found an ideological opening—by all means follow up with a well-reasoned and friendly email. Thank the conservative for an interesting discussion, and then get the last word. Remember to mix your facts with some storytelling, and don’t sink to the level of foul language or name-calling.
That’s no way to talk to anyone, even a Tea Partier.
Do you have other tips for dealing with right-wingers civilly? Share them in the comments
Charles Purdy is the author of the book Urban Etiquette: Modern Manners for the Modern Metropolis and a longtime manners-advice columnist. In his Queerty column, he addresses issues related to social behavior.