A red-haired, middle aged woman gazes off in the distance while her brunette companion urgently shares divergent political views.
Don't let your relatives across the aisle make you flip the table at Thanksgiving. A psychologist offers tips on how to cope.

Whether online or in person, Thanksgiving gatherings are likely to be fraught with political tensions this year. Here’s how to keep peace with more strident relatives, and how to speak up without ruining dinner, too.

A Norman Rockwell version of Thanksgiving probably isn’t going to happen this year. And if you are planning to have three generations gathered tightly ’round the holiday table, please reconsider. 

Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in mid-October, and those who had big gatherings may now be regretting it. “Canadians saw a surge in COVID-19 cases in the two weeks that followed,” according to the Miami Herald. “It’s a trend that has continued ever since … and is likely to affect Christmas celebrations in Canada.” 

Even a partially muzzled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website stated, “[The pandemic] is worsening, and small household gatherings are an important contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases.” (The wording would surely be less anodyne if CDC officials could, you know, speak freely.)

The CDC issued stronger guidance on Nov. 19—for obvious reasons: “More than 1 million COVID-19 cases were reported in the United States over the last [seven] days. As cases continue to increase rapidly … the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is … at home with the people you live with. Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu.”

That’s an improvement over the milquetoast “guidance” of Nov. 11, which stated, “Gatherings with more people pose more risk than gatherings with fewer people.” 

What the CDC doesn’t say is that maskers are likely very nervous about getting together in close quarters with anti-maskers—and with good reason. Spending time with extended family members who believe the coronavirus is a hoax is risky on several levels.

One potential silver lining of this year is that it is literally unsafe to attend gatherings with more than a handful of people. (Some of whom are people you’d rather not see, anyway, amirite?) Limit your exposure and lower your stress level.  

“The potential for a really disruptive time is just too likely,” said Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in private practice in State College, Pennsylvania. “Politics has always been a hot topic—and one relatives could really go at each other over—but this year, it could be especially volatile.” 

The message is clear. From both public health and mental health standpoints, it is  unsafe to gather in person with people who aren’t already in your pod … and who have opposing political views. 

But in this climate, even remote gatherings can be a potential minefield. Rodino has suggestions on how to kick off a Zoom Thanksgiving and other ways to keep the peace if you’re breaking (virtual) bread with people on the other side of the political divide. 

  • Lean in to tried-and-true wisdom. People have always said, “Avoid discussing politics.” That is truer this year than it ever has been, said Rodino. Unless you’re certain you’re in like-minded company, politics should be off limits. 
  • Set ground rules. “The Zoom host should consider preparing everyone in advance,” Rodino said. That preparation can happen in the email invitation, at the beginning of the call— or both. “The host can say, ‘Let’s all agree that we’re not discussing politics for the duration of our gathering.’”
  • If someone wants to fight, don’t engage. “If someone breaks the no-politics rule, ignore them,” Rodino said. “Disagreeing usually gets that person going even more.” 
  • Correct misinformation. If Crazy Uncle Red Hat just won’t give it a rest—and no one seems willing to cut him off—it’s okay to offer a counterpoint such as “I believe the scientists” or “I don’t generally believe conspiracy theories.” But do it calmly and succinctly and be prepared to move on. 
  • Use “I” statements. “Take the advice of marriage counselors who recommend that couples use ‘I’ statements rather than more accusatory ‘You’ statements,” Rodino said. For example, you could say, “I like Biden’s views on affordable health care,” rather than “You have got to be kidding me about health care being a privilege granted only to the wealthy.” Rodino added, “Don’t attack. Say what you believe and leave it at that.”    
  • Reward yourself (and your cause) for staying silent. “If you’re worried you might not be able to hold your tongue, plan in advance to do something good for an important cause each time you’re compelled to say something but don’t,” said Rodino. “You can think to yourself: I’m not speaking up now, but I will. And then give $10 to one of the Senate candidates in Georgia, for example, for every time you bite your lip.” 

Thanksgiving will come and go. And even the pandemic will—eventually—diminish its hold on our lives. But some of our friends and relatives may still believe the election was stolen from their Chosen One. What then? 

“That’s a tricky thing to navigate,” Rodino said. “You can keep quiet on Thanksgiving but not forever. We all need to verbalize our feelings. Just keep using those ‘I’ statements and take it on a person-by-person basis.”

Dr. Elaine Rodino is a psychologist in private practice in State College, Pennsylvania. She specializes in holiday blues, depression and anxiety, relationships, menopause and boomer and senior issues. Learn more about her at drelainerodino.com.