Dinner table detente
James Ferguson acknowledges that he’s a little nervous — OK, maybe a lot — about Thanksgiving dinner this year. After a heated election campaign that has left family members everywhere barely talking to one another, so wide is the chasm between opposing political viewpoints, he’s afraid the dinner table conversation could lead to something just short of war.
But he has an answer he thinks could keep the peace, and the 27-year-old Fort Washington accountant is happy to share it with anyone harboring similar fears.
“I’ve just got to make sure we cook good food,” says Ferguson, a Hillary Clinton supporter preparing for dinner with some dozen family members, mostly from his dad’s side and not all like-minded politically. “Nobody’s talking if they’re eating good food.”
That may be true, but it’s hard to imagine a totally silent Thanksgiving dinner, no matter how delicious the turkey. And with America’s most contentious election in generations not even three weeks past, families throughout Maryland are bracing for the inevitable. At some point, it’s likely politics will come up in conversation — probably when Aunt Mildred, no longer able to remain quiet, turns to Uncle Fred and asks, incredulously, how he could have possibly voted the way he
voted. And at that point, the fur could very well start flying.
In Maryland, to judge by the electoral map, most of those sitting at the dinner table will be on the glum side; Clinton received more than 1.6 million Free State votes, compared to just under 925,000 for Donald Trump.
That could translate into a lot of folks being on the defensive, ready to pounce on any suspected slight. At the same time, celebratory Trump supporters, who may have felt outnumbered in these parts during the run-up to the election, may be unable to resist the urge to crow a little and engage in heated discussion.
“I don’t know if heated is the right word, but I think that it will certainly come up at some point,” says Paul Taylor, 27, a Trump supporter who recently accepted a job in ticket sales for a Kentucky sports team and is back home in Abingdon for the holiday. “People have some definite opinions,” he says. “I’m sure Hillary’s emails will come up, and the Clinton Foundation and the pay-to-play. And I’m sure that Trump’s past indiscretions will come up.”
But he doubts the discussion among the 15 or so family members who will be gathering at his grandmother’s house in Essex will become unruly, or unpleasant.
“We can get along,” Taylor says. One’s politics, he explains, “doesn’t change who we are as a family, or what we do as a family.”
Johnthan Speed, 28, is a marketing associate living in Bethesda who supported Clinton. Most of his relatives, he says, are “red-state people.” And he’s not exactly looking forward to hearing what they’ll have to say today.
“I’m mostly afraid, not really because of America being made great again or anything, but a lot of the issues being brought up — Black Lives Matter, gay rights and that sort of thing — a lot of my family, they’re kind of old-school, a lot older than me,” says Speed, who will be splitting his holiday between gatherings in Washington, Montgomery County and Baltimore.
And he’s not buying the keep-them-wellfed defense. Political differences, he believes, will not remain dormant for long.
“Once people get enough food in their system, maybe a couple drinks, that sort of thing just tends to come up,” Speed says.
But the key to maintaining a convivial dinner table at Thanksgiving this year may rest with imagining yourself in the other person’s shoes, says Michelle Carlstrom, a mental health professional and senior director of work, life and engagement at the Johns Hopkins University, where she works with faculty and staff. Don’t be quick to go on the defensive, don’t rub anything in and don’t insist on bringing up subjects people would rather avoid, she suggests. Erin Lavelle, left, a Republican, and Chris Lavelle, right, a Democrat, of Sykesville are one of many American households with divided political loyalties.
Keeping one’s mouth shut may be called for. “It is very soon after the election,” says Carlstrom. “It is very jubilant for some, and very raw for others. It just may not be the right time to engage in this kind of dialogue. If one isn’t feeling resilient enough to kind of begin a healthy dialogue, then the best thing to do is probably stand down and not engage.”
Remember, she urges, that this is family you’re sitting alongside. Is making a political point really worth straining bonds that have been strong for years, regardless of who has occupied the White House?
“I do think Thanksgiving is going to be a time of venting,” Carlstrom says. “Some people are going to feel vulnerable and powerless, and to exacerbate that is not going to turn into a great Thanksgiving Day. This is a time that everybody needs to have the long game in mind.”
In predominantly Democratic Baltimore, many families anticipate little heated discussion at all. “I can’t remember ever having a political discussion in my family around Thanksgiving,” says Del. Curt Anderson, 67. “We’re pretty much all of the same persuasion. We’re Democrats. We’re African-Americans. We kind of feel the same way about pretty much everything.” Adds City Councilman Robert Curran, 66: “My family are diehard Democrats, so I don’t believe that discussion will be ... at the dinner table as much as a discussion of who won the Loyola and Calvert Hall [football] game.”
But outside the city, where things are not quite as homogeneous, some nerves are already raw. Erin Lavelle, a 38-year-old mother of two boys living in Sykesville, is a proud Trump supporter. Her husband, Chris, a 38-year-old physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, voted for Clinton. The two argued politics often before the election, and remain resolutely divided.
Their solution? They do their best not to talk about it anymore. “We got into some pretty serious heated arguments,” Erin Lavelle says. “I drew the line and said, ‘You and I can’t talk about this, because every time we do, it gets nasty.’ ”
Agrees Chris Lavelle, “I think we’re both dialing it down.”
Which makes it just as well, the Lavelles agree, that they’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner by themselves this year — they both hail from Minnesota, and generally don’t make it back there until Christmastime. Her father is Republican, Erin Lavelle says, while her mom “has always been a silent Democrat.” Some family members lean blue, while others are resolutely red. The fissures are not easily bridged. “This is a polarizing topic,” she says, “and if I got my two brothers and my mom and my dad and the whole family and their kids and everything around the table, it could be a bloodbath.”
Then again, it might not be. Civility is always an option, especially when family members are involved. Kathleen Mettle, a 28-year-old environmental activist living in Howard County, has already celebrated her Thanksgiving, back on Nov. 13. Seventeen family members of various political persuasions gathered around the dinner table at her grandmother’s house.
Wonder of wonders, everything turned out fine.
“My attitude was, ‘I’m going to go, I’m going to make the best of it, and if things get
Thanksgiving survival guide
A six-point post-election instruction set from Michelle Carlstrom, a mental health professional and senior director of work, life and engagement at the Johns Hopkins University:
Remember, it’s early. Reactions are still fresh and emotional. The post-election conversation really isn’t about politics; it’s about celebrating the outcome or reeling from shock. Recognize you are in an emotional conversation, not a political conversation.
Listen. Everybody wants to talk, so let them. Listening doesn’t mean you agree, but if you disagree and jump into the conversation, be prepared for it to escalate — and do you really want to go there?
Look for common ground. We live in a culture of “disagree and destroy,” but these are your friends and family, not your enemies. You can preserve relationships by looking for places to agree — even if those agreements have to shift the conversation toward football or the weather.
Take care of yourself. If it’s too much, have a plan B — get up, get a drink, use the bathroom, take a surprise call from an old friend, get a breath of fresh air.
Play the long game. Four years will pass and administrations change, but families live on. Hurtful and offensive words at the dinner table are not easily forgotten. Using kind words does not mean walking back on your values; it means being kind in your communications and blending strength with kindness. This is probably not the moment to dig in and fight.
Remember the purpose of the day. What are you thankful for? It’s usually the people in our lives, like our family and friends. Practice tolerance and kindness and make memories. bad, I’ll leave,’ ” she says. “But it actually went really well. That was the most pleasantly surprising, humanity-embracing, life-affirming thing that could have happened. It wasn’t like we all sang ‘Kumbaya,’ but when [politics] did come up, people were really civil.”
Still, she admits, “for the most part, we avoided it.”