Five Subjects to Talk About This Thanksgiving Weekend, Not Including Politics (You Know Why Not)

By David Mills Published on November 23, 2017

Don’t talk about politics at Thanksgiving, nor religion. Don’t, that is, unless your family and friends agree or everyone can play nice. Or you like angry yelling followed by the slamming of doors and/or sullen angry silence. I mean, some families enjoy acting like a soap opera. We don’t, but to each family its own.

Here’s the point: I’m not suggesting we all keep quiet just to keep the peace. I’m suggesting we try a different way to get to know each other better. Political arguments usually come off the top of the head. Pretty much everyone offers the same arguments. They may be good or bad arguments but they don’t go very deep.

We want to hear the heart speak. That’s what we really want to hear from family and friends. Who they really are. What they think, value, hate, fear, love, like, hope for. Where they hurt, and what makes them happy. We want to talk in a way that moves people reveal to something about themselves and for us to reveal something about ourselves in return.

So forget politics. It gets in the way of really hearing someone else. I’ll know you better if I know what you remember about your grandparents than I will if I know how you voted. 

Life and Art

I asked Facebook friends for examples of questions to talk about. No politics, no religion. Here are some suggestions in five categories.

Our Life with Others. Two friends offered “What is a good neighbor and how can we be better neighbors?” and “Fresh (or not) ways to volunteer, starting a family service group — for car repairs, sewing, meals.”

What to Do With the Trolls

What if you have an earnest person at the table? Or worse, the family troll? Or even worse than that, the person who says in that annoying doe-eyed googoo way, “We must learn to talk together”? What do you do, if you’re out of chloroform?

Just say one thing: Not now, we don’t. “No” can be the magic word.

You can try to explain that you want to know how he really thinks. We’ll learn more about each other’s minds, imaginations, beliefs, values, tastes, and the like from talking about other subjects than talking directly about politics.

Alternatively, you can follow my friend Joanne McPortland’s example. “In my family, where this [interminable political argument] has been a perennial problem, we solve it by an announcement of no politics ahead of time, cutting off violators’ access to alcohol and food (locking people in bathrooms is not off the table), and engaging in therapeutic rounds of killer high-stakes poker.”

We play brutal games of Scrabble, but the principle’s the same.

Talk about “the people you’ve met this year, the things you’re learning about your town, interesting anecdotes,” said another. “This is especially true if the stories are comically self-deprecating.”

A young academic friend sent: “A reflection on hospitality that is secretly political, but not overtly.” That “secretly political” strikes me as playing with fire, but asking how we welcome others into our lives, and why, and what limits we may set, could create a deep and helpful conversation.

“Family history,” another suggested. “Maybe even work on a family tree. Especially, get the seniors to reminisce about their siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or further back and relate stories about them. Capture these names and tales before they are lost forever.”

Art, Books, etc. Two more suggestions: “New artists, writers” and “Books you’ve been reading or want to start reading soon.” Also (this is me) books you’ve bought and feel guilty you haven’t read yet.

Movies, says a third friend, but not just movies. “We’re a film loving family. We have a homemade Big Lebowski charades game where you have to act out a BL quote. It’s a tradition now.”

I’d add asking the question, “If we were a movie family, who would we be?” If it’s one of the bleaker Bergman movies or a slasher movie, get the whole family into therapy.

Big, Quirky, and Thanks

The Big Subjects. The friend who suggested “What is a good neighbor” also suggests “What is the good life, and who has shown us how to live it?” To this, a young friend adds, “Saints!”

A scholar who grew up in communist Albania writes, “I would suggest the topic of ‘joy,’ and putting on joy at this time of the year.” You might ask: What is joy? What does it look like? How does it differ from happiness? Can it be acquired or is it is a gift? Describe joyful people you know and what their joyfulness means to you. Resist the temptation to tell someone else that he ought to be more joyful.

The Quirky Subjects. Not a big favorite of mine, I admit. A friend offers, “Sunrise or sunset?” Almost any pairing you can think of would work.” Blue or red? Up or down? Books or tablets? Winter or summer? Baseball or football? Apples or oranges? Mozart or Bach?

Overt Thanksgiving. A clerical friend suggests “Whatever is good and noble and holy about the person standing in front of you.” A spiritual writer adds a method for doing this: “Have everyone write on a blank piece of paper at least one good attribute of each person present. Share during the meal.”

Along the same lines, my young academic friend suggests “A reflection on how we’re thankful for our given time and place (which we cannot choose!).”

What They Really Think and Feel

Almost any of these questions can bring people to share what they really think and feel. Even the most frivolous question can do that if you make clear that you really want to know the answer. You want a conversation that creates friendships, friendships for which you can give thanks on Thanksgiving.


My thanks to the friends who answered my Facebook request for suggestions: Judy Warner, Christopher Altieri, Margaret Rose Reilly, Chase Padusniak, Tara Jernigan, Alexandra DeSanctis and Jeannie Ewing.

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