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5 Subjects to talk about this Thanksgiving, not including politics (because that would be pointless)

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David Mills - published on 11/23/16

David Mills provides a handy-dandy list of safe conversations topics, for the long day of food and talk

You don’t have to talk about politics at Thanksgiving, or religion, unless a) your family and friends agree, b) everyone can act with rare civility, or c) you like angry yelling followed by sullen angry silence.

Creating conversations

My editor asked me to write on things to talk about other than politics this Thanksgiving. The point is to create conversations in which people reveal something about themselves. Political arguments come off the top of the head. You want to hear the heart speak.

But what if you have an earnest person or a troll at the table, who says in that annoying googoo way, “We must learn to talk about this together,” and you’re out of chloroform? Say two things: 1) Not now, we don’t; and 2) We’ll learn more about each other’s minds, imaginations, beliefs, values, tastes, and the like from talking about other subjects than by talking directly about politics.

You want to know why someone voted the way he did? Talk to him about being a good neighbor or his favorite saints or what he remembers of his grandparents or even whether he prefers cats or dogs. (The right answer is: dogs, though how this correlates with voting I’m not sure.)

Alternatively, you can follow Joanne McPortland’s example. “In my family, where this [interminable political argument] has been a perennial problem, we solve it by an announcement of no politics ahead of time, cutting off violators’ access to alcohol and food (locking people in bathrooms is not off the table), and engaging in therapeutic rounds of killer high-stakes poker.”

The suggestions

Facebook friends supplied many good examples. Judy Warner sends a whole bunch: “Here’s what various members of my extended family would find interesting and non-political: Recent surgeries. Bob Dylan. Lyme disease. Pete Seeger. Recent travels. The Marine Corps. Childbirth, breastfeeding, and babies. Hunting. Wind turbines. Food. Books. Playing musical instruments. Dogs. Ebola. Contra dance. Scottish country dance. Gardening.”

Here are some suggestions in five categories.

Our life with others. Christopher Altieri offers, “What is a good neighbor and how can we be better neighbors?” Margaret Rose Realy adds “Fresh (or not) ways to volunteer, starting a family service group — for car repairs, sewing, meals.”

Talk about “the people you’ve met this year, the things you’re learning about your town, interesting anecdotes,” says Scott Beauchamp. “This is especially true if the stories are comically self-deprecating.”

Chase Padusniak suggests “A reflection on hospitality that is secretly political, but not overtly.” That “secretly political” strikes me as playing with fire, but asking how we welcome others into our lives, and why, and what limits we may set, could create a deep and helpful conversation.

“Family history,” Richard Grebenc suggests. “Maybe even work on a family tree. Especially, get the seniors to reminisce about their siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or further back and relate stories about them. Capture these names and tales before they are lost forever.”

Art, books, etc. Realy suggests “New artists, writers” (note that “new”) and Alexandra DeSanctis, “Books you’ve been reading or want to start reading soon.” Also (this is me) books you’ve bought and feel guilty you haven’t read yet.

Movies, says Rae Stabosz, but not just movies. “We’re a film loving family. We have a homemade Big Lebowski charades game where you have to act out a BL quote. It’s a tradition now.” I’d add asking the question, “If we were going to act out a movie, what would our family movie be?” If it’s one of the bleaker Bergman movies or a slasher movie, get the whole family into therapy.

The big subjects. Altieri suggests “What is the good life, and who has shown us how to live it?” To this, Christopher McCaffery adds, “Saints!”

Ines Mursaku writes, “I would suggest the topic of ‘joy,’ and putting on joy at this time of the year.” You might ask: What is joy? What does it look like? How does it differ from happiness? Can it be acquired or is it is a gift? Describe joyful people you know and what their joyfulness means to you. Resist the temptation to tell someone else that he ought to be more joyful.

The quirky subjects. Not a big favorite of mine, I admit. Altieri offers, “Sunrise or sunset?” I would add: “Cats or dogs?” but almost any pairing you can think of would work, except “Trump or Clinton?” Blue or red? (the colors, not the political symbols) Up or down? Books or tablets? Winter or summer? Baseball or football? Apples or oranges? Mozart or Bach? Crux or Patheos?

Overt Thanksgiving.Tara Jernigan offers “Whatever is good and noble and holy about the person standing in front of you.” Jeannie Ewing adds a method for doing this: “Have everyone write on a blank piece of paper at least one good attribute of each person present. Share during the meal.” Padusniak suggests “A reflection on how we’re thankful for our given time and place (which we cannot choose!).”

Almost any of these questions, even the most frivolous, can bring people to share what they really think and feel. That’s what you want to know, because people are not their politics, and because you want a conversation that creates friendships, friendships for which you can give thanks on Thanksgiving.

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