Does Talking Politics Make Us A Nation Of Boors?
This might be a good moment to remind all that polite people are not supposed to discuss politics, sex, religion or money at social gatherings.
There are two possible responses to this traditional admonition: 1) We are not polite people. And 2) gimme an unprintable break--what the hell else are we supposed to talk about?
I'll grant the etiquette mavens the money part. That's perhaps the last taboo for many people--folks who are perfectly happy to detail their latest sexual congress or their opinions about candidates for the big-C Congress suddenly get all mannered and haughty when the topic of dollars arises, as in how many do you have and how'd you get them and what do you do with them?
But in this impossibly opinion-saturated political season, what do you make of a survey that contends that 77 percent of Americans say they "avoid discussing politics" with friends and family?
I'm not buying it. Yes, I understand that here in Washington, we're more likely than folks in most places to talk politics. And yes, I figure someone in my line of work is more likely than the average bear to be drawn into a conversation about things political. But I just don't see much evidence that the traditional bar against talking about such controversial matters is holding.
It makes perfect sense that talking about politics can be very upsetting, and surely we all know folks who really cannot be trusted to maintain the peace if they are confronted with human beings who do not share their political worldview. "Nearly half of respondents have had bad experiences in the past when sharing their political views--and rather than risk a verbal battle, they hunker down and shut up," says the press release from the company that commissioned this survey, VitalSmarts, which produces corporate training tools. And certainly we can all think of folks in our lives with whom we know never to talk politics (there's somebody in my family whose body literally shakes with rage when someone dares to express an opposing political view, but enough about that.)
In her "The Right Thing To Say," Miss Manners (Judith Martin) provides this "list of topics that polite people do not bring into a social conversation:
"Sex; religion; politics; money; illness; the food before them at the moment and which foods they customarily eat or reject and why; anything else having to do with bodily functions; occupations, including their own and inquiries into anyone else's; the looks of anyone present--especially to note any changes, even improvements, since these people were last seen; and the possessions of anyone present, including their hosts' house and its contents and the clothing being worn by them and their guests, even favorably."
I'm thinking Miss Manners must go to some silent parties. Maybe they talk about flowers, or furniture.
Actually, that may not be far from the case: Here's a woman who argues that the aversion to talking politics is a female thing, and that women need to get over their reticence about causing tensions or controversy so that they can be more engaged citizens and better role models for future generations.
Here's the disturbing part of the survey results: When political conversation "becomes the least bit controversial," the VitalSmarts folks say, "only 28 percent feel they can control their own temper and only 23 percent believe they can handle it if the other person gets upset."
This is not good. It calls not for less conversation about controversial matters, but more--and earlier. There is today indeed an almost pathological aversion to giving offense in everyday chatter and classroom discussion, and that attitude is pervasive in today's schools and colleges--a social shift that has perhaps left an entire generation without the tools needed to have a strong but civil disagreement and to hash out such matters without doing themselves or others physical or psychic damage.
So: More talk about poltics and all that other good stuff, no?
By Marc Fisher |
October 7, 2008; 7:29 AM ET
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