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Miss Conduct

Advice: How do I avoid political talk over the holidays?

Plus, giving gifts at a distance.

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My extended family members are wonderful, but we view current events very differently. I’d love to avoid the topics 100 percent, but I think it’s a problem that people have been taught to avoid talking about politics and religion and don’t know how to civilly disagree. I can converse respectfully with my older relatives, but those my age or younger get heated and won’t let me finish my thoughts. I do sometimes lose my cool! How do you suggest dealing with this over the holidays?

E.B. / Ladera Ranch, California

You have my permission to avoid the topics, 100 percent! As you describe it, you’re an extreme minority in your family, politically/ideologically, and also that no one is mocking or disrespecting you for it. Thanks to you, your family knows that a reasonable and lovable person — one of “us,” not one of “them” — can believe as you do. They may not have, otherwise. Let that be enough, both to ease your burden at what should be the joyous end of a long, hard year, and also because that probably is enough, and further debate, civil or not, will only cement positions and fray relationships. If discussions arise anyway, try the techniques associated with “deep canvassing”: Listen not to debunk, but to understand. Ask the other person questions, not about sources and statistics, but about their feelings and experiences. The aim, which you can make explicit, is not for either of you to persuade the other, but for each of you to be able to articulate the other’s position fairly and accurately.

This is an honorable, honest way to deal with kind, reasonable people who have beliefs you think are wrong. Don’t try it with bullies, narcissists, or abusers; you might as well go hiking in bear country wearing a salmon-skin jumpsuit. This isn’t advice to you so much, but I want to be clear to my readers I’m not advocating letting one’s self or other people be mistreated in the name of someone’s belief system. This includes not compromising on COVID safety. Listen empathetically to the deniers — over Skype — and live to argue in person another year.

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When mailing presents to friends in a foreign country who know each other, is it rude to ask one friend to receive the package and distribute the gifts, to save on postage?

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H.B. / Somerville

It isn’t rude unless it is! In less enigmatic terms, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea, but it could easily go awry. Do they all still like each other? (2020 has been rough.) Are the gifts strictly equal? Do your friends think of themselves as nearby neighbors, or are they only “close” by, say, trans-Atlantic perspectives? What’s the COVID situation like where they are? Are you asking someone reliable, but not someone whose reliability makes them the go-to person for errands and favors every single time? Are you mailing the packages well in advance and tracking them? You get the idea.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.