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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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If political discussions were banned in the polite corners of DC, the vacuum would no doubt be filled by even more mindless yammering about the Redskins. Give me little rat-faced girls screeching about how they need their abortions please.

Posted by: athea | October 7, 2008 8:41 AM

I love this topic! My friend and I discuss politics A LOT. During the primaries, having an all out argument about Clinton and Obama was the norm. I have been called a sexist (I'm a woman who opposed Clinton) and a reverse racist (I support Obama)....from my best friend of 10 YEARS!! He and I find it amusing and invigorating to argue our opinions and support them with obscure facts (read: I google stuff while debating over the phone). The downside is our other friends totally refuse to comment or even be in the same room when these battles do down. They used to cheer us on and take they bail. I guess we became annoying...LOL

Posted by: SW DC | October 7, 2008 8:42 AM

I suppose you could talk about the books you've been reading ... naah ...

Posted by: Grumpy McGrumpenstein | October 7, 2008 9:06 AM

Actually Mark, I agree with Ms. Manners. If you KNOW that you and another party disagree (and not just a little bit) I think it is polite to avoid political conversations. I know my sister and brother in-law disagree with me politically on practically all major issues. What would be the purpose of bringing this up if I know it causes tension? We can make light jokes, but past experience has shown that conversations about politics with them leads to an unpleasant environment. My husband and I disagree on many political issues as well, and while we have debated them to death, I don't enjoy talking to him about it because it makes me feel less in tune with our marriage.

In many instances, as in this one, I think Ms. Manners is right.

Posted by: DC | October 7, 2008 9:08 AM

Books, movies, travel plans, recent trips, family, sports, theater, etc, etc.

There's a lot out there Marc. If your dinner parties would be silent without politics discussions then you unfortunately have some very one-dimensional friends.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | October 7, 2008 9:15 AM

Great column, but I imagine you're preaching (or at least prosing) to the choir on this one, Marc. Personally, I believe the inability to banter about politics underlines the degree of humorlessness among too many Americans. And like Athea, I dread filling conversational voids with inane sports talk. Really, I'd rather chit-chat vacuously about the weather....

Posted by: Andy | October 7, 2008 9:18 AM

If I know that my friends are kindred political spirits, I am comfortable to discuss politics at length...frequently simply to commiserate or to vent.

Regarding people who hold opposite political views, what's the point? I'm not going to convert them, and they are not going to convert me. All it would do is raise my blood pressure.

Besides, there's a whole world out there to talk about: sports, books, movies, travel, food, etc, etc. . . .
(see Arlington, VA post of 9:15 am, with whom I totally agree)

Posted by: Anonymous | October 7, 2008 9:22 AM

People are totally OK discussing politics with people who agree with them, but no one wants to have a real conversation with people who disagree- (see the post above). This is why politics are so polarized! You might not think it possible to convert one another, but it doesn't mean that it doesn't do some good just to listen.

Posted by: MostOffensive | October 7, 2008 9:32 AM

I avoid talking about politics in public. I used to work at the Pentagon, which is pretty evenly and angrily split between Democrat and Republican and only the people with the lowest emotional IQs would talk about politics. When General Wesley Clark and Naval Hero John Kerry were running in the 2004 primaries it was as divided an environment as I've ever seen. Only a real dope would talk about politics at work.

Amongst friends it's just a boring topic. I mean you're already friends, how varied are opinions going to be?

Posted by: DCer | October 7, 2008 9:38 AM

I totally agree with MostOffensive. I know my friends and I will never think the same way or totally agree on every issue. That's why I like them. It would be boring to be surrounded by people who talk, look and think alike. And sometimes I get a different perspective on issues I would have tuned out if not brought up by close friends.

Posted by: SW DC | October 7, 2008 9:44 AM

I believe its that you aren't supposed to talk politics or religion when drinking...but maybe that is just in my family...

Posted by: ballgame | October 7, 2008 9:45 AM

i love hearing about people's viewpoint's, especially if they are different than mine. I feel that way I'll learn and grow-- it makes for a richer conversation. And I really am curious-- why do you think X? how can you support Y? It rarely swings me over to their viewpoint, but at least I've heard their point of view. I think if it can be handled in a respectful manner, there is no reason why politics should be off limits.

What is interesting is the Big Bailout as conversation topic seems very comfortable. Perhaps because it is so important. Also, it is non-partisan, so saying "I hate it!" doesn't tip off anyone as to your general political leanings, something that is verboten. Why is it verboten? Perhaps because it just makes you seem less mysterious-- allows people to put you in a little box when we are in fact all so much more complex than just our party affiliation.

Posted by: capitol hill mom | October 7, 2008 9:45 AM

I like to talk about nature and literature. In order to do so, one must actually look around and be literate, so I meet few people I can converse with.

Posted by: bkp | October 7, 2008 9:55 AM

It depends on whether the discussion is actually about "politics" or just an excuse for people to call each other names. I talk about politics all the time at some people. People who pay attention to the facts and can talk about issues without acting like everyone with a different view is "the enemy". Those are the ones I like to chat with.

Then there are those who are so partisan that any cogent thoughts are buried under an avalanche of either "Chardonney swilling, Birkenstock wearin, America hatin' commie b-tard" comments or "MF'ing, stupid, greedy, in-bred theo-con fascist" retorts. These folks view political differences as character flaws and cannot see how anyone holding such views could be anything other than dangerous and evil.

It's unfortunate that the second type are as prevalent as they are. They are also the reason for Miss Manner's admonition and why it's always better to err on the side of politeness...especially when you're a guest at someone elses party.

Posted by: Mara | October 7, 2008 10:53 AM

It's DC... the watercooler conversations, where much of this might happen in the rest of the country, begin to bump up against the Hatch Act.

Also, I think we've reached the point where civil conversations is getting difficult. I've been able to have good conversations (and when did 'polite' become the metric?) with folks from all sorts of political ilks on all sorts of issues. But McCain/Palin crosses a threshold. If you support Palin and the guy who thought it'd be a good idea to put her within arms-reach of the presidency, then you're an idiot, perhaps suffering from licking lead paint or a head trauma. That's not opinion; it's just reality. No real room for disagreement. Sorry. There's room for sensible, thoughtful people to disagree on all sorts of things, but Palin's fitness for national leadership is no where near that territory.

Posted by: Jake | October 7, 2008 11:56 AM

Just look at the postings on the comment sections of the Washington Post. Hate is the common language among those left of center now. If you don't support Sen. Obama, you must somehow be "mentally deficient", "racist", "red-neck" or some other trite put-down. Gee, really makes want to talk politics with folks like that. You cannot talk reasonably with people who spout hate and garbage just because you hold a different point of view.

Posted by: mikel4 | October 7, 2008 12:10 PM

I will discuss anything with anyone... but if finer points are argued, then the conversation better be loaded with facts instead of emotion or you may end up making the Barack supporter feel inadequate for not doing their own homework...

Posted by: Yawn | October 7, 2008 12:12 PM

It all went to hell when we let women have the right to vote.

Posted by: chauvanist | October 7, 2008 12:27 PM

There's a misspelling. It's "etiquette," not "ettiquette."

Posted by: tester | October 7, 2008 12:36 PM

I found the frequency with which I participate in or overhear political discussions dropped off dramatically once I left the DC area. I've generally found this to be a pleasant change in my environment. My experience has been that political discussions take one of two forms: (i) like-minded people validating their own intelligence and opinions by agreeing on everything, or (ii) people engaging in verbal sparring with people who disagree with them, which almost always results in raised blood pressures, hurt feelings, and nobody moving an inch. I'd also point out that (i) assumes a certain level of agreement among the people involved which is not necessarily the case, and thus may result in hurt feelings and lowered opinions of other people involved. The long-run result is driving away of others into their own camps, increasing polarization.

The only political conversations I've ever found potentially productive have been those where you won't be able to predict everybody's view and who will and won't agree with you before the conversation begins, and where no topic or position is considered unacceptable-repeal of the 13th Amendment is my favorite example of this.

Posted by: A Curious Fool | October 7, 2008 12:52 PM

If you don't support Sen. Obama, you must somehow be "mentally deficient", "racist", "red-neck" or some other trite put-down.

BS, I've never seen any such comments. How's your job astroturfing for the RNC, troll?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 7, 2008 1:02 PM

"If you support Obama and the party that thought it'd be a good idea to put him in the White House, then you're an idiot, perhaps suffering from licking lead paint or a head trauma. That's not opinion; it's just reality. No real room for disagreement. Sorry. There's room for sensible, thoughtful people to disagree on all sorts of things, but Obama's fitness for national leadership is no where near that territory."

There. Fixed it for you.

Posted by: AK | October 7, 2008 1:39 PM

I don't want to get in political disagreements with family, friends, or co-workers. The last thing I want is to have reason to suspect that any people whom I hold in high regard are regular readers or, God help us, posters at DailyKos.

Posted by: AK | October 7, 2008 1:41 PM

Mark, you make some interesting points, but also miss one: the extent to which politics defines freindships, especially in this city.

I used to be heavily involved in politics, but decided to leave that behind a pursue a career-path completely unrelated to politics. Well, you'd have fingured that I'ma leper now, as a group of about three couple who I though my wife and I were very close to have all stopped speaking to us for various (mostly bogus) reasons.

Politics is what drives this city. There are amny other people in Washington and other vibrant communities -- arts, foreign, etc. But at the end of the day, DC is a 'government town.'

Posted by: ThinMan | October 7, 2008 1:51 PM

Thank you anonymous. Sadly, you just validated my point.

Posted by: mikel4 | October 7, 2008 2:02 PM

Talking politics with neighbors (as opposed to actual friends) is especially iffy, because we are stuck living near each other even if we would not normally be friends. I would rather have a superficial but smiling acquaintance with a neighbor than an argument with them.

However, there seems to be a total pass on yard signs. Nobody in my neighborhood gets mad or even huffy if I silently stick Obama, Warner, and Moran signs in both of my front yards (I have corner lot). Same with bumper stickers. Lots of thumbs up and happy yells, but so far no nasty backlash yells.

It's the one-on-one conversation with a neighbor that would be resented, and perhaps rightly so. In a conversation, the other person feels forced to respond and they may not want to share their views.

Posted by: Fairfax Voter | October 7, 2008 2:10 PM

I agree that politics should be discussed more. I have two close friends who over the years of our friendships I have completely converted... probably further than I might have wanted. A little gentle prodding can go a long way towards opening up a person's mind. Just don't make them feel threatened.

Posted by: guitaristo | October 7, 2008 2:11 PM

I agree with the ideology that it's important to have open discussion about these sort of things. Because if we don't, people would just get more extreme in their own little directions, and discussing any issues would just become that more onerous.

In practice (as a moderate, in political discussions I often go to lengths acknowledging both sides of the coin, and other sides that ought to have a bigger presence...), I find it's very easy to have such conversations with people who a) don't hold their opinions as handed down from God Himself and others' opinions as anathema; b) are at least open-minded enough to give someone else the opportunity to speak their minds without jumping to judgement; and c) are more centrist in their views.

The worst, I find, are those who end up further down the left OR right, and therefore can't even imagine giving the other side a fair shake, even for the sake of a discussion.

TRULY being polite in a conversation, even and especially in a political one, is being accepting and respectful of another's opinion, even if we disagree. And that doesn't mean vocally disagreeing and saying why is inappropriate at all. Every single one of us were taught in primary school that it's important to be respectful in a conversation with another person, so why doesn't anyone do that anymore?

Posted by: Wakka Wakka | October 7, 2008 2:33 PM

I think that the bigger risk is not offense but indifference--I've encountered more bores than boors.

Posted by: College Park | October 7, 2008 2:48 PM

I hate talking politics with my friends; not because they disagree with me, but because it feels so silly.

Posted by: nlc | October 7, 2008 3:09 PM

I'll cop to being one of the ladies who won't argue with some men anymore. I stick up for my convictions and debate well. Men HATE that they can't win. Then they get nasty. I don't cave. Then the other people in the room get uncomfortable.
It's gotten especially bad since some of these men are Republicans and seem particularly defensive about the poor performance of the administration. The snarling has gone up a few decibels.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 7, 2008 3:29 PM

I tend to avoid politics in conversations for the same reason many here do; too many people who will talk about it are so far to the left or to the right that "talking" quickly devolves into an argument/slander/yelling/whining and basically resulting to insulting (see the Palin/Obama comments above). For too many people, "talking politics" means the same as "convincing you that your wrong." It is just not worth it.

But there is another problem I don't think has been addressed. If you want to have a discussion, where do you find the information to make your argument? With so many things constantly changing (the candidates positions, the state of the world, etc.), where do you go to get accurate, unbiased information?

Posted by: Mark S | October 7, 2008 3:32 PM

First of all, people have ALWAYS gotten emotional when talking about politics. I mean, ever hear of the Civil War??

More to the point, politics has become a more troublesome topic of conversation lately because the GOP has been hijacked by social conservatives who equate one political persuasion with one's fitness as a human being. I'm all for having a reasoned discourse with someone who sees things differently. But why would I want to spend time talking to somebody who thinks I am inherently defective simply because I don't plan to vote a certain way?

Posted by: Andy | October 7, 2008 5:46 PM

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