By Shalayne Pulia
Nov 22, 2017 @ 11:00 am
Photo Illustration: Getty Images

What have we learned from our favorite TV shows' holiday episodes? S—t goes down on Thanksgiving.

Whether you find yourself dancing with a raw turkey on your head or embroiled in an out-of-control Slapsgiving bet, emotions run high. But if you’re like me, emotional political conversations at the dinner table is a new thing.

Before the the 2016 elections, it was more: “Are you still single?” “You should date [insert name of childhood friend]—he’s a nice boy,” and “Are you cooking enough? Eat more [insert recipe].” Generically invasive questions and demands get annoying, but there's nothing that incites a family feud of National Lampoon proportions like the inevitable mention of Donald Trump.

I'm not naive enough to think that my family was on the same page politically before Trump moved to D.C. But this particular presidency has had a way of magnifying our differences and, what's more, eroding the line between political and personal. Showing support for the young and hip Obama when I was in college may have been met with eye rolls, but my decision to join the Women's March and don a "Pussy Hat" nearly gave my 70-something-year-old father another heart attack. 

On both sides of the aisle, "people feel a sense of fear and betrayal based on parts of their identity that are either being valued or disrespected," said psychologist Jessica Koblenz, PsyD, when I reached out to gain a better understanding of why 2017 politics is more divisive than ever. She thinks it's due to a shift in political consciousness—what used to be impersonal and distant has become personal and polarizing because "fundamental aspects of people's identity are now part of the political landscape." According to Koblenz, for ecample, "Being female, being transgender, being gay [comes with] a feeling of isolation and fear due to the marginalization of these groups." This makes it impossible for people to detach personality and sensibility from how someone voted.  

Maybe you haven’t seen your long-lost uncle, a proud resident of one of the reddest states in the country, since before November 2016, or maybe you tilt right of center and your cousin is still hardcore feeling the Bern. Before your last meet, it may have felt easier to put aside differences and focus on your personal connections. But now, Washington's fights unfold on the most intimate of battlegrounds—from identity to race to lifestyle—and feel deeply personal to many.

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And that includes me. A few years ago, if a relative responded to the label “feminist” with an eye roll, I would shift focus to a more universally comfortable topic. But when they roll their eyes about sexual misconduct allegations brought against our sitting president or transgender soldiers right to be treated like everyone else in their units, I have a harder time letting it go, nor do I want to.

In the weeks that followed the election, I saw a haze of confusion, anger, and downright nastiness form (and not in a Nasty Woman kind of way). One of the most tense arenas was Facebook, where I saw friends and family antagonize one another and where—I admit it—I fell into a comment war with a relative who belittled Trump's "grab 'em by the pussy" comment. I'm glad that I had the guts to share my views, but I was dealing with a person whose opinion I couldn't do much to change. I learned that few things are more uncomfortable than having a public fight with family members immortalized on your Facebook feed—except maybe having the same fight in person, over the holidays, with a captive audience of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

And yet, while I know I will disagree with some of my family members, I still respect them. I love them. They helped shape me into the woman that I am today, so I refuse to simply write off their views, even the ones I find most hurtful, as insanity. Plus, ignoring the other side clearly hasn't worked too well. I think it's a disconnect in understanding, a difference in the world they grew up in. I think we can still learn from each other, but to do that, we have to be able to talk openly and honestly without flinging turkey bones across the holiday spread. That's why I want to make an effort to avoid fighting. Instead, I want to understand.

I know I'm likely to get riled up when my T-backing family members bring up Trump this Thanksgiving, but I also think there's a fine line between standing your ground and fueling a fire of misunderstanding. So I’ve asked Dr. Koblenz for some tools I can use to minimize conflict this Thanksgiving—without feeling like I’m silencing myself. This girl's staying Nasty. But the holidays are all about putting our differences aside, aren't they?

Stay nasty 😼 #InternationalWomensDay ♦️

A post shared by Shalayne Pulia (@spulia) on

RELATED: Barack Obama Is Returning to Politics for the First Time Since Leaving the White House

Here’s the plan:

1. No antagonizing or straying from the topic at hand. Koblenz warns against letting existing family issues seep into irrelevant topics of discussion. "Oftentimes we get upset when we see the way that our mother, father, brother, etc. is acting and put it together with the pattern of behavior that has 'always' occurred," she said. You know, like how your mom "always" disagrees with you or your dad "always" gets the last word. "Instead, try to take each event at face value and stay in the present moment," said Koblenz. 

I'm going to keep this in mind, specifically when/if debating with some of my older relatives who have what I will politely call backwards opinions. My instinct may be to fling a snide insult (something like Blair Waldorf would have said if Gossip Girl survived to season 11). But smart-ass comments don’t work. They just feel good in the moment; you can't change someone's opinion if you put them on the defensive because there's no room for constructive debate.

2. No How I Met Your Mother Slapsgiving festivities rooted in uncommon ground. I refuse to brawl it out on Turkey Day, unless there’s a football in my hand. A debate? Sure. But a full-on fight does nothing to further my cause. I'll be trying not to let my anger about politics spill into other territory (like, ahem, tackling someone too hard on the football field or "accidentally" spilling gravy on them because of an opinion I find offensive). Koblenz also suggests monitoring alcohol intake to avoid exacerbating tense situations. "Oftentimes families may use alcohol to try to numb the deeper conflicts that exist," she said. If it feels like things are heating up too much, don't reach for the hard cider or spiked hot chocolate to get through it. 

3. No speaking without listening. Most importantly: LISTEN. It's easy to shout into a void, but the badass women and men actually making a difference? They listen, too. Tune into the views of people different from you so that you can understand their positions before sharing your own. Koblenz suggested asking yourself some questions to help you see things from the other side, like: "What is particularly stressing them right now? What emotions are they going through? What feelings are they experiencing?" It’s not always easy to hear someone out when you think they're SO wrong, but it’s worth it. And it helps you better understand your own position. 

Better Things' Pam Adlon wrote an essay for InStyle's November issue about the importance of healthy debate. She talked about “really listening, not just waiting for someone’s lips to stop moving before it’s your turn to speak.” I feel that. She also wrote about talking politics with her brother who holds very different views. They disagree constantly, but they listen to one another and, in effect, learn more about their own beliefs to grow as human beings.

4. Take a break or change the subject. "How's the new girlfriend, cuz?" "Can you teach me to cook like that, dad?" "How was your trip to Florida, long-lost uncle?" You're not going to change everyone's mind. And you're certainly not going to change everyone's mind on the spot. You can say your piece, but when things start to escalate, it might be time to walk away or at least take a breather. That's not the same as admitting defeat; it's a strategic move. Get to know your relatives when they're not talking politics. Ask about their lives. Go to the store for more cranberry sauce. Let what you have said sink in for them. 

That’s the goal this holiday: Listen, talk a little politics, and hold my ground while avoiding a showdown. Oh, and eat turkey, scarf down some pumpkin pie, and maybe find out where Uncle Long-Lost has been since 2016.