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Thanksgiving Survival Guide: Polarization edition
Issue 92: Five tips for navigating politically polarized Thanksgiving gatherings
With the holidays and Thanksgiving coming up, many people many find themselves at a Thanksgiving dinner feeling politically tense. Are you worried about sitting through your uncle’s annual rant about American politics or your cousin’s position on the Middle East?
You are not alone!
We have felt that too, and research has revealed that political identification may impact how people spend their Thanksgiving dinners. Here’s a post from our newsletter archive that dives into the issue and five tips for how to survive.
In 2018, researchers analyzed ~25 billion smartphone location data pings from ~10 million Americans and found that that politically diverse Thanksgiving dinners were “30 to 50 minutes shorter” than ones with politically aligned guests. In 2020, the study was replicated with a meta-analysis and found that across multiple studies, politically diverse dinners were on average about 24 minutes shorter.
The authors found that political diversity was associated with a less pleasant atmosphere and this explained why dinners were shorter (see figure from the study below). These politically-fraught dinners were 12–19% shorter than dinners with likeminded folks, which lasted an average of 257 minutes. So if you find yourself making excuses to leave the party before dessert is served, you are not alone.
It appears that families and friends, either sick of arguing about politics or struggling to avoid the topic altogether, may have simply minimized their time together. This is likely a consequence of the fact that Americans are more polarized than any time in at least the past four decades and disagreements now take the tone of good vs. evil—making conversations feel more like sectarian conflict than a spirited policy debate.
If you are dreading a food-fight over politics this year, we might have a recipe for avoiding disaster. Last year, we published an article in The Guardian explaining why people are polarized and what might be done about it. While we are unlikely to resolve issues of campaign finance reform or the role of the media—including social media— over dinner, we might have the tools to navigate at least one meal with that tetchy uncle or aunt.
To help make it easier, here are five tips from The Power of Us:
Remember that we all contain multitudes. As we have said repeatedly, people contain multiple identities and politics is merely one dimension of who we are. To avoid having your dinner filtered entirely through the prism of politics, try to make these other identities salient. Remind your dinner companions of other identities you hold in common—perhaps as family members, football fans, or members of your local community.
Express collective gratitude. Thanksgiving is quite literally a time to express gratitude. So make time for it. The expression of gratitude can provide a salve for any gathering because it blocks toxic, negative emotions and inspires people to be more generous, kind, and helpful. Gratitude is a social glue that can improve the climate at home or in the workplace.
Expose false polarization. If all efforts to avoid them fail and politics arise, it can help to explain false polarization. Despite real and widespread polarization, people also tend to massively overestimate how much they are divided by political issues. Indeed, hyper-partisans (like that annoying uncle or cousin) eating an unbalanced media diet are the most likely to have false perceptions. When asked to estimate how many Republicans earn more than $250,000 a year, for example, Democrats guessed 38%. In reality it is 2%. Conversely, while about 6% of Democrats self-identify as members of the LGBT community, Republicans believed it was 32%.
Focus on issues and find common ground. The negativity that people feel towards political opponents is known to scientists as affective polarization. It is an emotional and identity-driven feeling of “us” versus “them”. Yet research finds that people often have many areas of agreement when it comes to actual policy. So try to move past emotional or symbolic matters and focus on real policy issues, like rising inequality, health care for people with pre-existing conditions, or the minimum wage. These are critical issues—and ones that could increase the quality of life for many people. You might find you have more in common that you expected.
If all else fails, appreciate the food! American Thanksgiving is one of the largest collective culinary celebrations in the world. As we wrote in a previous newsletter and in a column for New York Magazine, food is often a core symbol of social identity and eating together is one of the most fundamental ways humans foster social connection. In the words of Anthony Bourdain: “Food is everything we are. It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It's inseparable from those from the get-go.”
Thanksgiving dinner won’t solve climate change, economic inequality, or threats to democracy, but it is nevertheless an opportunity to connect with the people we care about—and, for that reason, important for our mental and physical well being. And for relatives who have slipped deep into the rabbit holes of conspiracy, this might be their best chance to hear a different perspective from people they care about, people who have otherwise been stereotyped and parodied in their social media newsfeeds.
News and Updates
Jay was quoted in a New York Times article about subway etiquette and social norms in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jay helps answer the article’s title and main question: “Does Anyone Know How to Behave on the Subway Anymore?”
“It’s probably the place in New York where you’re pressed up against humanity more than any other place,” said Jay. Read more about what Jay had to say about the unwritten social norms of the subway in the article.
Catch up on the last one…
Last week, we introduced The Center for Conflict and Cooperation at NYU. To learn more about the Center, read our latest newsletter where you can find out what we’re working on and potential collaboration opportunities!