Holiday Civility Tips From Author Of 'We Need To Talk' With impeachment in the news, spending Thanksgiving with family and friends who disagree on politics might generate anxiety. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk.
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Holiday Civility Tips From Author Of 'We Need To Talk'

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Holiday Civility Tips From Author Of 'We Need To Talk'

Holiday Civility Tips From Author Of 'We Need To Talk'

Holiday Civility Tips From Author Of 'We Need To Talk'

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With impeachment in the news, spending Thanksgiving with family and friends who disagree on politics might generate anxiety. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Wishing you and yours a very happy and peaceful Thanksgiving, and I say peaceful because we all know holidays in general can be tense. You gather with family that you may not have seen in forever. You may not really have anything in common with them outside your DNA. And then you add in different political ideologies, and things can get stressful. Layer on top of that the possible impeachment of the president, and, well, you've got yourself a thanksgiving for the ages, and not necessarily in a good way.

You know who's really smart about this stuff? Celeste Headlee, veteran public radio journalist and the author of the book "We Need To Talk." And we are so lucky that Celeste is in our studios. Hi.

CELESTE HEADLEE: Hi. It's great to see you.

MARTIN: So nice to see you. So you talk about how people's anxiety about just the mere possibility of having intense exchanges with friends or family around the holidays is not based in reality. What does that mean?

HEADLEE: Well, it means that - you know, they do a YouGov-Huff Post poll - survey on this topic, and it turns out that the number of people who say it's quite likely they'll get into an argument is 4%. Yeah. It's a very small amount, and sadly, the reason for part of this is because we are so ideologically separated. People tend to marry people who agree with them. People tend to hang out with people who agree with them. So that means that less than 25% of Americans are going to sit down at the table with someone who doesn't agree with them on politics. But it also means that for the vast majority of Americans - again, 96% - not likely to get into an argument.

MARTIN: Because we're self-selecting, but...

HEADLEE: We're self-selecting, but also, we're basically polite, you know?

MARTIN: Right - yeah, which you say isn't necessarily a good thing. I mean, you want people to talk about complicated subjects, and you say we shouldn't be afraid to discuss politics.

HEADLEE: Yeah. You know, instead of avoiding topics like politics and religion because you're afraid of a fight, I would rather people learn how to talk about those things without fighting because what ends up happening when you avoid these subjects is it just makes you particularly ignorant about those particular subjects. And so yes, I would very much rather people simply learn to talk about these subjects together and allow other people to hold a different opinion, realizing that there's no stakes, right? No policy is going to change because of your argument about politics over Thanksgiving.

MARTIN: Could the relationship change?

HEADLEE: Yes, absolutely. The issue isn't what relationship changes after the conversation. What I really have a problem with is when people go into a conversation or choose not to on principle, right? I'm not going to talk to this person because their opinion is so outside the pale.

MARTIN: Right.

HEADLEE: That's the problem because what you have to understand is most arguments are caused by trying to change someone else's mind. So let me just free you of that forever. You will not change their mind.

MARTIN: So then the purpose, if not to change someone's mind, is to understand.

HEADLEE: Right.

MARTIN: It's empathy.

HEADLEE: Exactly.

MARTIN: And you're right. It's not - if you come armed with stats and reports - like, you know this particular uncle is going to show up at Thanksgiving, and you know he feels this way about this issue, and you print out all the news articles. That's just not going to work.

HEADLEE: No. I mean, that means you're coming prepared to talk, right? You're not coming prepared to listen. I mean, if you want to say, hey; it's going to be tough for me to listen to what my uncle says, I mean, think about what I need to do when I start feeling angry and want to yell at him. Let me prepare for that. But bringing in all your statistics is probably a waste of time.

MARTIN: What if someone stirs up trouble?

HEADLEE: So I try not to ignore that it happened. Let me give you an example from my personal life. When I was very first meeting my fiance's family - I'm mixed-race, and his dad told an extraordinarily racist joke. And he looked at - my fiancee looked at me like, oh, God. And I turned to him, and I said, you know what? I'm part black. That was a really racist joke. So let's - between you and I, let's find some more jokes that you could tell because I don't want you to ever tell that one again. And of course, he was like, oh, no. I'm not racist. I was like, well, that was a really racist joke. I mean, there's just no way around that. But I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt.

MARTIN: Right.

HEADLEE: And let's move on.

MARTIN: Right.

HEADLEE: And let's talk about something else you can do. I'm not saying...

MARTIN: And you also tried to diffuse it with humor a little bit, too, right?

HEADLEE: Exactly, which people say all the time - and I understand those who say...

MARTIN: It's not funny.

HEADLEE: Right. It's not funny, right? And yet you have to ask what your goal is, right? What is your goal in calling out that person? Is it to feel better about you and to get that feeling of sort of release of yelling at somebody, or is it to actually maybe build a bridge where there isn't one, a bridge of understanding?

MARTIN: OK. So we've talked about the - you know, politics and religion and race and identity - those are big issues that immediately get provocative quick. What if it's just an uncomfortable question that one asks you? You know, like, hey; you know, when are you guys going to have a kid? When am I getting a grandbaby? Or, hey; you seem to have dropped a ton of weight. Why are you eating so much on Thanksgiving?

HEADLEE: Yeah. So here's what I often say to those things. When people ask me inappropriate questions, then I turn around and say, wow. That's a really personal question. Why do you ask? Or if somebody says, are you still on that diet? And I'll say, yeah. Yeah, it's going fine. How's your eating?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HEADLEE: I mean...

MARTIN: How's your eating? Because it's sad - when you put it that way, it's like, wait. What?

HEADLEE: Exactly.

MARTIN: Why is this person even inquiring?

HEADLEE: I think sometimes, people just say stuff. And they may - again, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they don't realize how inappropriate is.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HEADLEE: But in classic journalist fashion, if you turn the question back on them, it may make them go, oh, I don't like answering that question (laughter). And it may actually get them to stop asking that question again. But that's usually what I'll say - some version of, why do you ask?

MARTIN: Yeah.

HEADLEE: If you have to, you can say, wow. Do you like to be asked about your diet? I sure don't. But I would say don't ignore it.

MARTIN: But that's what I love about all of this advice. Just don't ignore it.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just kind of acknowledge things and be respectful. Come from a place of love. Call things out when you need to, and have a meal.

HEADLEE: Look. Anyone who has a loved one of whatever permutation of loved one it is knows you don't agree on everything. It may be something like how you load the dishwasher - right? - which it turns out is a huge bone of contention in a lot of partnerships. So, of course, these people that you see once a year or twice a year - you're not going to agree on a lot of stuff. It's OK. It's not the end of the world.

MARTIN: Celeste Headlee - she is the author of "We Need To Talk." Thank you so much, my friend.

HEADLEE: My pleasure, my friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONLIT SAILOR'S "THE GOLDEN YEARS")

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