Should you talk politics on vacation — or stick with the weather?
When Pauline Frommer recently contacted a New Zealand lodge to book a room, the innkeeper didn’t ask about her arrival dates or number of guests. Instead, she asked the New Yorker if she had attended the Women’s March in January.
“She had very strong opinions,” Frommer recalls.
These days, Americans traveling abroad are discovering that the tumultuous political climate in the U.S. is Topic A. With citizens of vacation destinations curious about the state of our affairs, casual discussions run the risk of morphing into Sunday morning news programs.
“This is not new,” said Barbara Bodine, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. “Our actions have caused direct anti-Americanism or awkward conversations abroad before.”
Bill Bull, vice president of risk management at the Council on International Educational Exchange, recently reached out to staff members at 64 study centers in 44 countries. The chorus responded: All good here. However, this semester, the first of President Trump’s administration, the organization reminded its college students and faculty to review its intercultural training guidelines. One of the most important: Mouth, yield to ears.
“If you are going to proselytize, then you are in the wrong place,” he said. “When you are in a different culture, you need to listen more than talk.”
Bodine suggests bolt-locking your lips.
“Leave the politics at home. Do not engage,” she said. “The rest of the world does not want to see a pro-Trump and an anti-Trump person duke it out in the middle of a Paris cafe.”
Bodine also cautions Americans against wearing T-shirts and baseball caps festooned with political slogans or U.S. flags. Save the patriotic attire for a rally.
“It’s inappropriate and unnecessary,” she said. “Why draw that kind of attention to yourself?”
Yet many travelers see themselves as part of a roving band of mini-ambassadors. They believe that they have a responsibility to participate in an open dialogue with their foreign hosts and share their views person-to-person. No podiums, just a bar stool or coffee counter.
“I think it’s important to exchange ideas and represent who you are as an American,” Frommer said.
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, also welcomes the conversation, which she says can often foster a greater understanding of complex issues. “I think it’s important to be a face — if you don’t agree with what’s happening — and a voice for the values that you think our country should represent,” she said. “It is very important that the rest of the world sees the diversity of views.”
If you plan to engage, do so with care.
Bull reminds Americans to be mindful of language. He cautions against using such absolutes as “never” and “always” and to avoid stereotyping and generalizing. If the dialogue turns threatening, he says, “disengage and walk away.”
Benet Davetian, director of the Civility Institute on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, encourages visitors to be aware of the destination’s political and cultural environment. A local consumed by his or her own country’s affairs can spin the conversation into an entirely different direction. For example, in Turkey, residents are contending with a president angling to consolidate his power and lengthen his term in office.
“They are so furious about their president,” he said. “They are dying to put Trump down.”
His advice: Take a conciliatory approach and maintain a moderate tone.
Lizzie Post, a president at The Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., and co-host of the podcast “Awesome Etiquette,” advocates a “filter check.” Before delving into a political discussion, have an honest chat with yourself. Ask yourself if this is the appropriate setting and right person for this type of dialogue. Take stock of your emotional state. Challenge yourself to some introspective questions. Can you be informative with your own views and respectful of others’ stances? Can you cede the last word, or will you try to sway the other person to your way of thinking?
“This isn’t a therapy session,” she said. “Set personal boundaries.”
Also, know your body’s alarms. If you realize that your voice is getting louder and your heart is thumping harder, you have plunged too deep into the topic. Post says to inform the person that you have entered territory that makes you feel uncomfortable. Then switch to a safer topic; weather, sports, food and books rarely ruffle feathers.
And if all else fails, use this diplomatic exit strategy. Post suggests saying, “I’m on vacation, even from politics.”