How To Discuss Politics Politely

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This year's dramatic presidential contest aroused feelings of passionate intensity that sometimes divided families. How do we keep the family dining table from becoming a verbal battleground? Host Scott Simon speaks to Pier Massimo Forni, author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude.


This year's dramatic presidential contest aroused feelings of passionate intensity but sometimes divided families. Thanksgiving is just a few weeks off. How do we keep the family dining table from becoming some kind of verbal battleground?

Pier Massimo Forni is a professor at Johns Hopkins and director of the university's Civility Project. He's also the author of a book called "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude." He joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Professor Forni, thank you very much for being with us.

Professor PIER MASSIMO FORNI (Johns Hopkins University; Author, "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude"): Hello. It's great to be here.

SIMON: Why don't people just avoid talking about politics at the Thanksgiving table?

Professor FORNI: Well, the holidays bring together friends and family who do not see one another very often during the rest of the year. And the participants to these reunions will use, sooner or later, this time to score points. And grown siblings very often regress to patterns of behavior that were forged during their childhood. They vie for their parents' attention and approval, they show off, or they accuse their parents to play favorite.

SIMON: So how do we keep things civil?

Professor FORNI: The main thing that I would suggest is to prepare. You have a family reunion coming up, review in your mind who's going to be there. Prepare your responses, and have them ready in case you need it.

SIMON: You know, you're essentially advising people to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner or a family reunion the way political candidates prepare to go on "Meet the Press."

Professor FORNI: In a way, that's exactly the same.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Now, is there a way for people to talk about this extraordinary event we've been through without anybody getting out the carving knife?

Professor FORNI: There are a few things that should be avoided. Do not blame. Do not say, it is people like you that brought us to this point. Do not gloat. Gloating is very common, but gloating is also one of the least endearing things you can do. And do not argue. Discuss, converse, but stop short of argument.

SIMON: I have a brother-in-law whom I love, but he deeply believes that man never landed on the moon.

Professor FORNI: Is it important for you to disprove the belief that your relative has? Can you let it go or do you have special reasons to make it right for him? You want to express your opinion but at the same time make sure that he doesn't lose face. If this is not something that he brings up all the time, that has a clear impact on the time that you spend together and with those around you and your family, I would just let it go.

SIMON: Professor Forni, pleasure talking to you. Thanks very much.

Professor FORNI: All the best. Bye-bye.

SIMON: Pier Massimo Forni, director of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, author of "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude." This is NPR News.

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