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On keeping friends by not trying to influence them

Emma, in a piece here entitled “Outnumbered 15 to 1”, touches on a problem that I find gruesomely fascinating, and have had to deal with a lot over the years. How do you conduct yourself when in company which you want to keep in with but which holds your opinions about some hot issue of the day in very low regard?

Scenario: you are at a dinner party with several friends with whom you enjoy discussing all sorts of things NOT including politics.

One friend, in passing, drops in a little “it’s all about the oil” or [with sarcasm] “well, the french were just cowardy custards, that’s why all good patriots hate them”, or [in tones of deepest contempt] “it’s just finishing off what Daddy left undone”.

Do you

A) Remove the rather good bottle of Australian wine that you brought, leaving them to drink some French blanc de plonk that one of the Guardian readers brought along, and never darken their doors again.

B) Reply “were the Normandy landings an equally unjustified completion of unfinished business?” (or equivalent riposte, depending on the precise nature of the comment), segueing neatly into a heated discussion in which no one will listen to anything anyone else says and everyone will go home riled up.

C) Change the subject to more neutral ground through whatever means necessary. “Oops, I seem to have spilt red wine on your yellow dress” would serve a dual function of diversion and oblique admonition.

What is the best strategy when talking to people about matters on which they disagree with you? – child rearing, say, to pick an example at random. Persuasion? Leading by example? Dropping in odd hints to indicate that there is an alternative and viable point of view? Careful avoidance of tension filled areas?


I suggest that for the purpose of this discussion we set aside the matter of whether we actually agree with Emma about the Iraq war. The point of these questions is to dig out some general principles for conducting ourselves in company which disagrees about some contentious public issue, but with which we wish to remain on cordial speaking terms. I’d like (us? – I hope others join in with comments) to come up with answers which would be just as much of use to an anti-war activist at a table of Emmas as they would be to Emma at the actual table which she describes.

As a general point, it’s perhaps worth saying to Emma that some very bright people over the centuries have found themselves at a loss to answer these questions. I can just about remember when the Suez crisis of 1956 used to divide families. In the USA, I’m sure that the Vietnam war caused rows among people who would otherwise have got along far better. And the history books are full of such episodes in the past. In the seventeenth century members of the same family were on opposite sides of the English Civil War, and actually fought against each other.

Let’s hope it doesn’t get that bad for Emma, but in the meantime, as she says, what does she do?

If I have a general suggestion, it is that when under attack like this, you should hang on to the distinction between (a) stating your own views and (b) saying that others ought to share them. In circumstances like these abandon all ideas about converting anyone. (The paradox is that if you want to convert them, not “trying to” convert them is actually the way to do it.)

If possible, avoid even saying what you do think. If compelled to state your position, keep it short, and state your view with the mind fix in place that they aren’t going to be persuaded. However, the sillier ones among them will try to persuade you. Listen carefully. With luck they will all want a turn explaining how wrong you are, and may forget about wanting to listen to your reply. At all costs avoid the trap of expecting equal time. On the contrary be grateful that you are not subjected to it. If you are, keep your answers (for you will be under cross examination) brief. Above all keep them “self centred”. Use the word “I” a lot, as in “I think” and “it seems to me” and “from where I sit”. Describe what you do truly think, and do truly believe. Abandon all attempt to deploy “arguments” or worse, “facts”, of the sort that you imagine might persuade them of your rightness, but which meanwhile were not central to making you think as you do. The advantage of concentrating on your own thoughts and beliefs like this is that you avoid saying anything about their beliefs, which is when things can get nasty.

Think defence. Defence defence defence. Don’t attack. Don’t criticise. Don’t even “argue”, even defensively, if you can avoid it. Just stonewall. Well, I think what George Bush did made sense. The way I see it is, Saddam’s regime was bad, and it was good to end it. I think (provided you do, of course) that toppling Saddam did help the fight against terrorism. I think (ditto) that the world is safer now than it would have been if the invasion hadn’t occurred. Yes, war is terrible. Yes, foreign intervention is dangerous. Keep the answers brief and to the point. Don’t answer with yes but. The yes but nature of your view will be obvious, and need not be stated explicitly. Try to keep calm throughout.

(As I say, if your actual objective is to get all these people to change their minds and think as you do, do the exact same thing. That way they will perhaps understand your position, and decide that they agree with it. Or not as the case may be.)

Eventually, your companions may realise that they aren’t going to bully you into changing your mind, and that they aren’t going to bully you either into any futile attacks of their various contrary positions, into trying to make life similarly unpleasant for them. You have your view and they have theirs, and that’s how it can stay. With luck, they’ll get board. Someone will crack a joke, and the stand-off will end in a good humoured way, with no fences broken, and nothing unforgivable said.

I wish. That’s all a lot easier to say than to do. Besides which it may all be entirely beside the real point here. I recall reading a book where it said that the trouble with men is that when women ask them for advice about solving a problem, men do nothing but give advice about solving the damn problem, when the real point is to express solidarity, and to say, yes, I hate that too, and generally to sympathise. Well, Emma, I do sympathise. I really do. I do indeed hate it when that happens, and frankly I don’t really know what to do about it except grit my teeth and wait for it all to end. And I bet the same goes for a lot of other people who hang around here.

So, guys, don’t just solve Emma’s problem. See if you can recall similar horrors of your own, and how you didn’t know what to do either.

55 comments to On keeping friends by not trying to influence them

  • MissedManners

    Listening will often get you a lot further than argument. It gives you a chance to compare what they are saying to what you think, and time to decide whether it is worthwhile stating alternative pts of view or not.

    Asking questions- ‘I’ve heard it said that blahblahblah’ can bring up an alternate point of view without committing yourself to defending it.

    If they are friends who give respect and are worthy of respect, mutual regard should save the day. If they are not people that one feels comfortable speaking one’s mind in front of, then listening and maybe dropping a few thoughtful questions to stimulate thought in those capable of it, might be a good strategy.

    Plain old good manners can get a person far, in uncomfortable situations.

  • Oddly enough, I DO empathize with the Emma Dilemma – although mainly in the breach. 🙂

    But I do observe that listening much and saying little is the best possible course. Most of us have a tendency to be so eager to make our own points that we don’t even listen, much less consider those of others.

    And all else aside, that’s a wonderful way to skewer yourself on someone’s unnoticed point.

    But another thing I would strongly suggest is that when someone DOES make a valid point that you’d have to do some real fancy wiggling to evade, just laugh and acknowledge the touch.

    There is nothing more powerful, nor better evidence of wisdom than saying “you know, you’re right.”


    Bob King

  • Dale Amon

    Yes, for fun I drop into my local in Republican (not the American sort) West Belfast and argue that George didn’t personally order the airplanes to run into the towers, and that it really was a good idea to go after Saddam.

    I’ve certainly not changed any minds, but I must be doing something right because I’ve not lost any friends and people still buy me pints 🙂

  • I sincerely share your concern.

  • YogSothoth

    For me, the problem has been that I simply cannot remain quiet while uninformed nonsense is presented as being factual – the maxim: “silence equals consent” comes to mind.

    Having said that, there’s no easier way to ruin a nice social gathering than to have a knock down drag out political battle right in the middle of it. What I’ve done recently is to say something like:

    “I do not agree with your opinion and at some point we must arrange to discuss this issue in detail. I can assure you that while you shall no doubt find that discussion exceedingly illuminating it is not a conversation I am interested in having at this time”.

  • I have strong beliefs, but I don’t like to argue. I don’t think a heated discussion ever changed anyone’s mind about politics, religion, or any other subject. So when I hear someone say something that completely goes against what I believe, I remain silent. I think my silence says a lot, anyway, since I’m usually very talkative. The only person with whom I love to argue politics is my sister, who’s my exact opposite politically, but we’re sisters so it’s all fun.

  • Doug Collins

    People who bring up contentious topics in social situations either know what they are doing and are trying to liven things up, or else naively think everyone else agrees with them. Both alternatives can be boorish.

    One important consideration is the situation. Assuming your blood is up and you would like to argue, ask yourself if everyone else there would be entertained or interested by a civil argument or would they just be made uncomfortable? If the former, and if you can keep it civil – go ahead, remembering that your objective is the audience, not your opponent. Try asking innocent sounding questions- that worked well for Socrates – for a while anyway.

    If a discussion would make everyone else uncomfortable and your prospective opponent hasn’t figured this out, you may give everyone else some welcome relief by taking him into a corner and having a private- again civil – discussion. He is burning to talk to somebody about this or he wouldn’t be creating a potentially embarassing situation. If you can quietly exhaust his ammo, you may be able to do your hostess a favor. You may even influence his opinion – but don’t expect him to admit that to you.

  • 1. Half-changing the subject: “Hey, what about those naked protestors, what’s up with that?” Unless you’re unlucky enough to have one of them at the table, everyone can have a good laugh at the expense of naked protestors and maybe the subject will go on to other naked people rather than going on with the war.

    2. “My brother/cousin/daughter is over there right now…” generally keeps all but the most radical anti-war types from going on. Of course, you only get to use it if it’s true, and as it’s basically a ‘I’m a Victim’ ploy, I only use it in extreme circumstances, such as if I know the hostess is distressed by the possibility of raised tempers. (However, if you’re trying to keep the conversation going, telling real-life stories from the front is a useful way of doing it.)

    3. Agree vigorously with everyone, including their contradictions: “Damn right, it’s about the oil. We’ll steal it from them if it takes us $86 trillion dollars to do it!” or “Bush is a moron. That’s how he stole the election.”

    4. Direct subject change: “Did you hear about that guy who put a firecracker in his ass?”

  • Tom Bosworth

    I have found that some fights are not worth the effort. Lunching with a co-worker who heatedly denounced George Bush as a goat-effing moron comes to mind. Not going to change his mind, but the conversation can take place with others around the table at a later date.

    Quite the converse from bringing “I’ into the equation is describing a counter-argument without announcing it as one’s own. Circumlocutions such as “There is the argument that…” or “There are those who argue that…”

    Some denounce that as cowardly, but it can do a good job of defusing the emotionalism which can get nasty when two or more people stake out opposing positions and go for the throat. It amounts to taking a position as Devil’s Advocate, which does not keep one from sharing the noble Horned One’s opinion, but can easily be shrugged away if things show signs of getting uglier than appropriate.

    I enjoy heated arguments if the others involved are smart and know their stuff- they can force me to think- I have fond memories of spending three days locked in a small hotel room in Bangkok in ’76 arguing politics and economics with a German woman who was a defender of the Baader-Meinhof gang- but that is not I think what Emma has in mind.

  • x

    These 2 maxims I find useful when dealing with friends like these:

    Churchill: “a fanatic is one who can’t change
    his mind and won’t change the subject”

    Emerson: “arguments convince nobody”

  • I work at the Texas Association of School Boards, an organization dedicated to perserving and lauding public (read: government-subsidized) schools. I certainly do not share those beliefs and I guess I’ve been lucky to avoid any major “discussions” of educational politics with coworkers, save one. He’s the archetypical NPR/NYT lefty and was surprised to hear I was, in my words, “a market fundamentalist.” *evil grin*

    However, he is merely a peer and not a boss or higher echelon employee with the consequential pull. I am certain that my views would earn me a closed-door chat with my immediate boss.

    She’s a wonderful lady and we get along great together, but she opined in one of our Monday board meetings that the “obvious solution” to the current Texas educational funding crisis was to “enact an income tax.” I held my tongue then, because I’m not sure I would have been cordial enough for my division’s intimate board room. I doubt my job would be in jepardy if my boss found out about my opinions, but it would certainly strain our relationship.

    I love talking politics with people…provided they maintain civility (I try, I swear!), keep at least one foot on the ground, and don’t try to saddle my beliefs and I with inaccurate and nasty labels.

  • I work at the Texas Association of School Boards, an organization dedicated to perserving and lauding public (read: government-subsidized) schools. I certainly do not share those beliefs and I guess I’ve been lucky to avoid any major “discussions” of educational politics with coworkers, save one. He’s the archetypical NPR/NYT lefty and was surprised to hear I was, in my words, “a market fundamentalist.” *evil grin*

    However, he is merely a peer and not a boss or higher echelon employee with the consequential pull. I am certain that my views would earn me a closed-door chat with my immediate boss.

    She’s a wonderful lady and we get along great together, but she opined in one of our Monday board meetings that the “obvious solution” to the current Texas educational funding crisis was to “enact an income tax.” I held my tongue then, because I’m not sure I would have been cordial enough for my division’s intimate board room. I doubt my job would be in jepardy if my boss found out about my opinions, but it would certainly strain our relationship.

    I love talking politics with people…provided they maintain civility (I try, I swear!), keep at least one foot connected to Reality, and don’t try to saddle my beliefs and I with inaccurate and nasty labels.

  • Eric R

    I agree that it is important to keep the discussion as civil as possible by not replying to insulting assertions in kind. However, when people make “it’s just finishing off what Daddy left undone” comments, it is usually because they haven’t thought through the issue and they assume “all right thinking people” hold their view. People norm off of those around them.

    By making a polite, rational statement of disagreement, you might prompt them to soften their view, or at least think them through. Even if it doens’t work, you’ll feel better. And think of anyone else listening who hasn’t formed a firm opinon yet, who is similtaniously exposed to unreasoned name-calling on one side and a rational, well supported argument on the other.

    Just be sure to change the subject before things get out of hand.

  • You reasonable people are missing one crucial dynamic… as the idiotarian bloviates and removes all doubt as to their ignorance… your very silence allows them to impose upon you and reinforce their own self delusions.

    Any opinion ventured rightfully risks correction…

    Confront idiocy and you shall be victimized by it far less frequently.

  • Katherine

    DANEgerus: I concur.

    I have been practicing silent politeness for years. I would be gnashing my teeth and smiling politely when some moonbat would froth at the mouth. It leaves you frustrated, riled up and feeling disgusted with yourself (why did I not say what I really think?!)

    And then I decided that enough was enough. People who would introduce controversial topics at social gatherings either believe that everybody must agree with them, or have no regard for opinions and feelings of others. So, very politely and without any heat (this part is still hard) I started stating my opinions. If my friends would drop me because they disagree with me on the tax policies, they are not worthy to be my friends. Obviously some of my former friends are not so friendly anymore (unfortunately, for lot of American liberals to disagree with them politically is a sign of moral and mental deformity). But I remain friends with bunch of people who disagree with me politically, but value me as a person. I have the same feelings about them, even if they do think that Bush is a moron and I don’t share this conviction. Interestingly, once you start speaking out you will find that there are number of people who agree with you, but were afraid to open their mouths.

    There are two basic rules for this kind of engagement: absolute politeness and knowledge of cold hard facts.

    But you must to be prepared to be insulted, even if you never shoot back.

  • Charles Copeland

    My normal response in such situations is to go into “anthropological mode” — imagine you’re an anthropologist in outer Borneo and some of the natives try explaining why a virgin has to be sacrificed because otherwise the Rain King will get real cheesed off and the crop will wither as a result of drought etc etc.

    Just smile, and take mental notes. Perhaps you can incorporate the natives’ speech acts in a field study.

    Schumpeter said somewhere than when it comes to politics most people’s IQ generally drops by two standard deviations.

    Of course, that doesn’t apply to libertarians ….

  • Will

    Having tried both the “polite restraint”, and the “argue it out” responses, I’d have to say the latter approach is infinitely preferable. Many people who hold reactionary anti-American, moral equivalence attitudes do so only because they have been imbued with such through a subconscious process of osmosis. In short, they think the way they do because they’ve been ‘told’ to. Tell them something else and, even if they don’t agree with you immediately, they go away with something to chew on.

    Besides, if you can’t be honest with your friends, who can you be open with?

    You might also be surprised how many people show signs of agreement if you dare to speak against the PC grain.

  • Lisa

    I realise that manners and etiquette aren’t popular anymore, but once upon a time, it was considered good form to avoid discussions about politics or religion. Growing up in a family whose political beliefs were diametrically opposed to my own, I’d have to say that’s still the best advice.

  • Kodiak

    Verbal jousts –even provocative or wanton ones, are alternatively a gift or a plague. If the latter comes up, things get worse rapidly. Every character is bound to antagonise their irremediably opposite mindset: opportunistic dilettante vs non-loquacious topic-closer, impassioned neophyte vs yawning erudite, extravagant doctrinaire vs disillusioned freethinker…


    If the rule is not respected, leave the audience immediately, turn the music on & invite the felon for a dance.

    Contrition & apologies guaranteed.

  • It depends on whether you’ve drunk the wine or not. If it’s still early, lay out your views and rationale as clearly as you are able. After all, they asked you and it would be churlish to refuse.
    If you have drunk the wine, avoid serious discussion at all costs.

  • Sean O'Callaghan

    The President’s “I respectfully disagree” is a useful response. If the initiator wants to continue, you should question them about their statement with the aim of leading them into your guns.

    My usual response to such anti-American nonsense is to point out that while the opposition holds such inane views American hegemony is assured!

  • Dale Amon

    Part of my way of doing things is to make sure people understand that I have libertarian views but do not choose to argue them at every drop of a socialist dogma.

    You gain much more respect for you view points, have more fun, keep friends and get dates by being someone who is fun to be with. Boorish or ideological fanatics make people associate the ideas espoused with the person espousing them… and gain them a very negative impression.

    It’s sometimes a judgement call when to get into a debate over the pints. Sometimes, around booth table piled high with empties and surrounded by friends, I’ve let loose my full opinion on things. But never, ever in a way that attempts to bludgeon someone or calls their own ethics into question.

    Rule One for me is: Be Nice.

  • As an aside, the difficulty of this situation is how PC has evolved among liberal-leftists.

    There is no fully satisfactory solution, because you will not change their minds, nor they, yours.

    Being unable to long keep silent, I have chosen to emphasize goals, results in the world I want. When folk agree on end results, ending poor world hunger, for instance, it establishes a shared value feeling. (Kick AAS, yay!) If you’re with nice folk, they prolly do share your values (or else you wouldn’t be friends). Farm subsidies or not then has less heat.

    Then the disagreement can be on “how to get there”. Whether Bush is really the best, or the worst, way to bring Iraq into democracy, is less likely to generate emotions AFTER it’s been stated that creation of a democratic Iraq would be a good thing. Similarly, the difficulty/ impossibility of such a thing is easier to disagree about, after agreeing it would be good.

    Most thinking persons DO have similar ideas about “good results”, just quite different ideas on how to get there.

  • I think this distinction between a person’s opinions and their friendship is a false one. Opinions are a large part of what makes a person who they are, and, when it boils down to it, politics is about people: a man’s opinion on a political issue tells you what he thinks of other people, including you. An argument may be uncomfortable, but it’s better to fall out with people who aren’t real friends than to go through life mistakenly believing you can rely on them. And, if they are real friends, then an argument about politics won’t make any difference.

    An example. When I first told my socialist mother (who has stood — and failed — as a Labour candidate four times, and is exactly the sort of element that Kinnock was trying to purge from the party) that I was going out with a Northern Irish girl, her immediate response was “Well, I hope she’s a good left-footer and not some bastard proddy.” That one little sentence tells you everything you need to know not only about the Left’s attitude to Northern Ireland but, more importantly, their attitude towards real-life people: a centuries-old perceived injustice is far more important than mere family; socialist dogma is more important than friendship or loyalty or any of those silly human things.

    I cut off all contact with my mother some time ago, and didn’t invite her to the wedding when I married the bastard proddy. And I’m better off without her, much happier for her absence. We could have gone on for years, politely avoiding talk of politics, but, really, what would have been the point? These opinions are better in the open, so you know who you can rely on and who’ll stab you in the back.

    I also lost a lot of friends after September the 11th. But, then again, I didn’t really: circumstances revealed to me which of my “friends” were friends and which were just polite enemies. That’s valuable knowledge. I have heated arguments about the war, Bush, etc with my friends on a regular basis, and it never interferes with our friendships, because those friendships are genuine.

  • Will

    Sorry to hear you couldn’t abide your mother’s prejudices, S2.

    It’s sometimes perfectly possible to get on extremely well with someone with whom you disagree politically, so long as neither of you allow the other’s politics to define the relationship. Sadly, all too many statists are so utterly bigoted, and afraid of defending their beliefs, that they are not capable of sustaining relationships with those of a different political bent. I was once had a girlfriend for nearly a year before our first serious political discussion, at which point her disgust at learning that my politics were individualistic was tangible. She ended the relationship soon afterwards. In retrospect, I could have ended it more dramatically had I not held my tongue over dinner in the company of her venemously socialistic friends. I know better now…

    PS Is everyone aware that Salam Pax gave an interview with the Today programme this morning?


  • Verity

    Why should I be bullied into a blood pressure- elevating political free-for-all when I came out for a nice relaxed dinner among congenial company? I’m with Lisa and, to my horror, Kodiak. Anyone who tries to start a “discussion” at the host’s dinner table by making provocative political remarks deserves to get it with both barrels. You can say in a loudish (not loutish) voice, “Not everyone shares your views, but it’s rude to have political arguments at the dinner table so I won’t address them just now.”

    If the lout persists with further chivvying (“Oh, come on! It’s interesting! Just give me one reason why it’s not all about oil! Scared you can’t win?”), just say, “Not right now, but let’s meet for coffee tomorrow morning to continue this discussion. I’ll be packing heat.”

  • S. Weasel

    Yup, I’ll go along with Verity and <shudder> Kodiak. Usually something like, “oh, we aren’t going to discuss politics over dinner, are we?” can be said in such a way that it projects both manners and good humor (and yet leaves a faint whiff of dissent in the air).

    But, you know, some of the currently fashionable political belief has gotten so loony and askew that I question whether I would want such people for friends. Beyond a certain point, it ceases to be possible to twease out that one aspect of personality and enjoy the rest of the human being.

    It’s like socializing with someone who holds strong religious beliefs and has no qualms about evangelizing. Or my old auntie who sees elves in her garden and insists that you believe her.

    True believers in bad data are so creepy and tiresome.

  • Charles Copeland

    OK, the bottom line is this:
    While people may generally broadly agree on ultimate goals but differ as regards the means to obtain them (i.e. differ in respect of ‘instrumental reasoning’) they do not always agree on ultimate goals. Some of us have a gut reaction in favour of liberty (we are libertarians); others have a gut reaction in favour of ‘equality’ (they are egalitarians). Since these are ultimate value judgments, one can only agree to differ. An egalitarian could completely agree with Ayn Rand as regards her empirical world view and yet argue that an egalitarian society is ‘juster’, even if means that the sky will (more or less) fall in. Most people are probably between the libertarian and egalitarian extremes — for example, I would put myself 90% on the libertarian side.

    Scientific claims can be challenged or accepted on evidential grounds; an ultimate value judgement, which is beyond the bounds of instrumental reason, can only be intuited as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

    And that’s the end of the story.

  • Verity

    No, it’s not Charles. We are discussing dinner table bullies, not common sense. We are discussing some individual who takes it upon himself to set the agenda at someone else’s dinner table and tries to force fellow guests, some of whom he’s probably meeting for the first time, to engage with him whether they demur or not.

  • Dan McWiggins

    I generally try to avoid such arguments, with one exception. Whenever I found someone who believed that Bill Clinton “hadn’t done anything wrong” and that “it was just about sex,” I dropped that person immediately. If they were too damned stupid to be upset at the idea that the President walked off with not even a slapped wrist for actions that would have landed every other American in a Federal prison, they were too stupid for me to ever speak to again. People disagree about opinions. Facts leave no room for that ambiguity. There are enough intelligent people out there; there’s no need to encumber one’s life with the clueless.

  • Dan McWiggins

    It depends on how strongly one feels about the issue in question. The Clinton impeachment was my breaking point. Anyone who told me “Clinton didn’t do anything wrong” or “It was all about sex” convinced me immediately that they were no longer decent company. If they were too stupid to be upset about the fact that the President escaped punishment for deeds that would have landed any other American in a Federal prison, they were too clueless to be encumbering my life. I lost some acquaintances that way but, on balance, I was much better off without them.

  • Charles Copeland

    Dan McWiggins writes:
    People disagree about opinions. Facts leave no room for that ambiguity. There are enough intelligent people out there…

    Would that it were so. Unfortunately facts often do leave room for ambiguity. There’s the rub. People can actually agree – say – on the principle that it is morally wrong to expropriate families from their homes in order to move in oneself, but disagree as to whether that is what a large number of West Bank settlers are doing. Reality is a pretty complicated business. Look at all those highly intelligent people who disagreed as to whether the invasion of Iraq would or would not lead to a democratization of the country…

    But I don’t want to turn this discussion forum into a virtual dinner table (and thanks to Verity for reminding me that I go onto a sidetrack).

    So I’ll hold my tongue as to my interpretation of the abovementioned ‘facts’…

  • Joe

    I completely disagree that political discussion should not be allowed dinner parties… the next thing you will be saying is that its not allowed to talk about people that aren’t there!!!

    There a couple of simple rules …

    If it is fun – go with it- if it is stopping the fun – put an end to it. It is very simple to end these discussions as all you all it requires is a subtle change of tone… which can be done with “a look”.., “a cough” or just say – “we’ll leave that discussion till later”… all of these can be done lightheartedly without anyone feeling embarrassed or slighted.

    If you really feel like doing it – Political discussions are most fun after eating… with plenty of drink available and with everyone in a “happy” mood. Anyone who huffs or gets stroppy should be gently ridiculed, until they see sense… anyone who gets violent should be quietly and gently disposed of (unless of course it is the host… in which case they should be challenged to a duel – in the order of cushions at 15 paces etc…)

    Dinner parties should be fun… so just use your imagination to find ways to have fun- whether talking about politics, sex, football or whatever…. !

    Make it fun and it won’t matter what you talk about!

  • R.C. Dean

    I just have a few basic rules:

    (1) Generally, I avoid political discussions in social settings. If up against it:

    (2) Try to say something new, rather than just parroting the same old party line. If nothing else, this tends to leave the folks on the other side speechless, as programmed beliefs generally have difficulty accomodating new thoughts.

    (3) Try to identify the real source of the disagreement and say it out loud, such as “Really, the disagreement over whether to go into Iraq comes down to a couple differences in people’s basic worldviews. If you think that blah, blah blah, you are likely to oppose the war. If you think that blah blah blah, you are likely to support it.” This also satisfies Rule 2, as this is generally a new thought to most people as well.

  • I have no interest in other peoples opinions on politics. they can believe what they like. I judge people on looks alone. Unless you are very good looking I am not interested in having dinner with you. If you are good looking, then I don’t care what you say.

  • Verity

    Thanks for the little seminar on attending dinner parties, Joe. I assume it was targetted at people who’ve never been to one.

    Boors who stuff yawningly predictable leftwing arguments down other guests’ throats as though it were a gaggle of Strasbourg geese sat at the table are not entertaining. People who start to argue politics at the dinner table are invariably intent not on discussion, but of forcing other people to their point of view. You say, “If it is fun, go with it. If it is stopping the fun, put an end to it.” How do you do that with a rabid, know-it-all lefty other than a bullet to the forehead? And, call me picky, but it just seems like such bad form to shoot someone at a dinner table other than your own.

  • Katherine

    >You can say in a loudish (not loutish) voice, “Not everyone shares your views, but it’s rude to have political arguments at the dinner table so I won’t address them just now.”

    That is fine, and I agree that it politics should not be discussed at the table. But what do you do (it happened just 3 days ago, so I am still evaluating situation) if you are at dinner with 4 other people and it is the Hostess who throws some inflmmatory remark and two other guests vehemently agree with her?

    Let me add one more variant to the problem: what do you do if only one of the couple is fanatical in his/her beliefs and wiling to evangelize?

  • Garth

    Who wants to attend a dinner party where no one wants to talk about politics? Where’s the fun in that? (aside from “nekid jello twister” afterwards perhaps…)

    The funniest thing about the comments here is that many of you come across as quite closed-minded and unable to tolerate debate while at the same time trying to tag that criticism on the person offending you at dinner. That’s quite sad.

  • S. Weasel

    I’m able to tolerate, and even enjoy, all sorts of things that I don’t think are the least bit appropriate at table.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    At my father’s RAF squadron, the officer’s mess banned discussion of politics and religion. Sometimes the military do get things right!

    Generally though, Brian Micklethwait’s original posting hits the spot. Actually, the best way for any libertarian to get folk interested in his or her views is to listen, state a view if appropriate, but not worry or seem to worry about whether folk agree with you or not. Just be a nice person.

    After all, I am a libertarian precisely because I think there is more to life than politics.

    Having said all of which, if I were having dinner and a guest started denying the Holocaust or the latest conspiracy theory about 9/11, I’d give it to em straight with both barrels. I had the experience of doing that to a minor BBC executive two nights ago. But I try not to make a habit of it.

  • Fred Boness

    I avoid people whose opinions are dangerous to my wellbeing.

  • CRL

    What I find myself getting, should I quote a study or an essay I’ve read somewhere is:

    1. “You argue like such an American.” (Duh, I am an American.)

    2. “God you’re so depressing.”

    3. “Jeeze, you think, like, ALL THE TIME. ”

    In which case I usually avoid the idiot (sorry) that particular friend/colleague for at least two weeks. No, I am not great at verbal confrontation.

  • R.C. Dean

    One more pointer for productive discussions in social settings – I always try to find points of agreement with whoever I am talking to. Acknowledging even relatively trivial points of agreement takes much of the heat out of these conversations, and is a good way to sneak up on changing someone’s thinking (and segues nicely into identifying points of departure).

    Frontal assaults went out with the Battle of the Somme. Even meme wars are wars of maneuver these days.

  • Joe

    Verity – Yes it was – because its remarkable how many people view dinner parties as torture… I have known many people who hate dinner parties for the simple reason that they might have to “talk to people” !!!

    Most people just don’t understand that “Boor Baiting” can be great fun. Sure we only learn how stupid we truly are when we profess our great theories to all and sundry at a Dinner Party…and someone with more wit and wisdom shows us that we are talking complete crap! If they are truly wise they can do it in a way that makes us laugh at it too! Of course if they are talking crap too… then things can get very interesting.

    How do you stop a “rabid know it all Lefty”… In a confined environment its easy… You just let them talk and as they’re talking you help them by directing the flow of their talk -until they reach the point where they are spouting a contradictory or so bullshit an argument that even they begin to notice the smell…

    …You can help them along as though you agree with them but you must never point out where they are beyond all help… until they start to notice it for themselves. Then you can feel free to laugh like a lunatic at their foolishness and they wont have a leg to stand on. If you do it right they will laugh at it too and you might even get some intelligent conversation with them after that.

  • Katherine

    “Acknowledging even relatively trivial points of agreement takes much of the heat out of these conversations, and is a good way to sneak up on changing someone’s thinking (and segues nicely into identifying points of departure).”

    This is a good tactic.

  • Brett

    I can usually derail such a conversation with the following observation: “I think controversy is a fine sport. If you do not, don’t raise controversial issues.”

    I’m rarely the first to raise them in ostensibly social situations, though far from the last to lay them down, so I can get away with this.

    Besides, who wants to be friends with someone who would break off a friendship over an intellectual disagreement?

  • Verity

    Joe – You seem to know some pretty bizarre people, or you are very young, so can be excused. (Not in my book, but in most people’s eyes.) The dinner parties you attend – by the way, there is no reason to capitalise this phrase, which seems to have been elevated to a position of proper noun in your mind – would appear to be teetotal or lubricated by a sixpack.

    Many people in this thread have not acknowledged the role of alcohol. Their distanced, glass-twiddling, one-eyebrow-raised in worldly amusement doesn’t work in real life. By the time they start punching their points through everyone else’s conversation, most lefties have put away around a bottle of wine. For some reason, conservatives and libertarians don’t seem to feel the same urgency about pressing their views on fellow guests at dinner parties. Don’t know why. .

  • Zathras

    The last three posters all raise good points. Personally I dread dinner parties, as much for the infrequency of intelligent conversation about serious topics as for any other reason. Boors and wackos, though, are usually not that hard to distract if all one is looking to do is avoid an argument. The drunker they get the less this is true, so identifying them early in the evening is fairly important.

    Beyond that, I commend some advice Winston Churchill gave to a private secretary who left his office to enlist during World War II: in conversation, “be wise but not well-informed. Give your views but not the reasons for them. Then you will have a great contribution to make.” The context was that his private secretary knew a great deal more about many important things than the people he was likely to meet on active duty. It would have been inappropriate for many reasons to put that knowledge on display. What counts at most times is not what one’s interlocutors think of your opinions, but what they think of you. Judgment and discretion are more important than passion and eloquence.

  • Joe

    Verity, yes I sure do know some bizarre people; strangely its the ones that think they’re normal who are most bizarre of all. I think it has something to do with them believing that they actually know what they are doing – when very often they really don’t.

    As for me being “very young”… heeheeheeheehee ah thank you, thank you, that’s the greatest compliment I’ve had all week- though sadly I have to admit that in the flesh I would probably not live up to the impression you have formed of me!

    But Verity – Capitalising on Dinner Parties is one of the pleasures of life 😉 As for my grammer – well I tend to the Humptyesque school of lexicography – so no excuses are required 🙂

    As for lubrication – whether it be water, beer, fizzy orange or a sublime claret… I enjoy it all because it doesn’t really matter – the company you are in is the only really important thing! Though a good wine works wonders.

    Did no one ever tell you – Never to let one person monopolise the wine or the talking… unless you are trying to get them into bed! Lefties and extremists of all shades are people like everyone else… so just treat them with the same polite curtesy you show your other guests and show them that you expect them to do the same. Most of all have enough confidence in yourself to have fun with them as a part player – and not let them become the main course (they would probably be tough and chewy anyway!).

  • Kodiak

    When invited at someone else’s table, palavering about politics is hugely tasteless & basically offensive for your challenging &/or charming company, whatever their (lack of) political involvement.

    When inviting others for a dining party in your castle, mentioning politics is the best guarantee your party will be the last one. And letting others do so without intervening is an infallible sign of weakness. The best intervention being derision or frivolity, or both.

    Even a frugal dinner deserves to be honoured by consummate delicacy.

  • Hadrian Wise

    Dear oh dear! The number of people who think you shouldn’t discuss politics! *Surely* it’s better than talking about the weather?

    If you are among friends, then make sure you have chosen intelligent friends who believe in rational argument, & then just go and have a rational argument – you *both* may learn something. People who believe in rational argument will acknowledge good points made by others, even if those points controvert their own views, & they will enjoy discussions with like-minded people – hence this whole blogging thing.

    If the person or people concerned are not friends, then you need to find out whether they believe in rational argument by saying something that is obviously true that only a fanatic would controvert – e.g., Saddam Hussein was a nasty man, or war is a bad thing, depending on which side you are on.
    If they pass the rationality test, then proceed with the rational argument; if they don’t, then appeal to somebody in the room who is rational; if there is nobody rational in the room, then you must be amongst family & so can say whatever the hell you like.

  • Dave O'Neill

    I always try to find points of agreement with whoever I am talking to.

    Repeat after me. It is ok to disagree… It is ok to disagree…

    If you can only be friends with people who share your political viewpoints and can’t discourse on political and social matters in a friendly way with people you disagree with then… well, actually I feel quite sorry for people.

    Its a trait I found hard to deal with living in the US that when any “sensitive” issues come up the conversation dies instantly.

    I’m with Dale, it must be the Irish side of me, but I have lots of friends of a variety of political and other outlooks. Hell, my wife and I disagree pretty seriously on certain social political outlooks. Does it stop us discussing these things? Nope.

  • Hadrian Wise

    Surely the point is that in any worthwhile argument, there must be agreement on the rules of argument, whatever the disagreements on content? People whose rules allow shouting, rudeness, moralistic intimidation, inconsistency, special pleading, fallacies, & automatic labelling (i.e., Fascist, racist, sexist, Communist, etc.) are plainly not worth arguing with – unless you want to humiliate them – & are probably not worth being friends with. But reasonable people are worth arguing with, other things equal. Other things are NOT equal when 2 people engage in stimulating, courteous, & involved discussion while the rest of the table sits around silent, bored, & embarrassed, but only a social inadequate needs to be told that.

  • Brennen

    This reminds me of this “friend” I had years ago. He would say the dumbest things. He actually said to me that he is against a tax cut for the rich because they would buy expensive cars and drive around like they are “all it”. I swear to god he said that and was serious. After he labelled ALL gun owners as vigilates I couldn’t take it anymore. I just had to tell him that he is dangerously stupid and he has very little to no respect for his fellow man. I don’t miss his stupidity at all.

  • Paul P

    If it gets really heated and uncomfortable you could always lighten it up by going “anyway,
    shall we move on to religion”.