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Civics in Action
August 2020

Is It Wrong to Talk About the Election?



By Anna Starecheski

The presidential election is on November 3rd. So why are some people refusing to talk about it?

No, but it can be tricky. Here’s how to discuss political issues without butting heads.

Ask Haley, 12, about her favorite singer, and she’ll talk about her for an hour. (It’s Taylor Swift.) Ask her who she wants to be the next U.S. president, and she won’t say a word. 

The presidential election is happening on November 3. You would think that most Americans would be talking constantly about who they want for president. After all, the results of the election will affect our country for years. 

But many Americans believe it is risky—and even rude—to talk about politics. 

Could this be true?

It’s an election year, which means you might be put in some awkward, even unpleasant, situations when it comes to talking politics. How do you handle your aunt who won’t stop texting you fake news about a candidate? What if your views on an issue are different from your parents’ or friends’ perspectives? Do you keep quiet (and keep the peace), or do you speak up for what you believe in?

That’s not an easy question to answer. Nearly three-quarters of Americans who took part in a recent study said that talking politics had hurt their relationships. With such discouraging stats, it’s no wonder that some people feel it’s risky—or even rude—to engage with friends and family about the election. “I think it’s good for people to stand up for what they believe in, but I feel uncomfortable talking about politics in a bigger group,” says Lila, 11, a seventh-grade student in New Jersey. “If I say something in front of the wrong person, they might get really upset.”

But talking to people with differing opinions is actually a good thing. Hearing alternate points of view makes you more accepting and helps you understand where other people are coming from. “The only way we can overcome our divides is by speaking across them,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the importance of talking about tough issues.

So this election year, let’s talk to each other, because it is possible to have a constructive conversation with someone you disagree with. Just follow these guidelines—and you might even be surprised at what you learn along the way.

Friendships at Risk

Talking about politics means talking about our government and how we feel about it. This includes talking about the November election and who we want to win.

Haley says that her mom has told her she shouldn’t talk about the election with her friends. “She says it’s better not to,” Haley says. 

A recent study found that nearly three out of four Americans said that talking politics had hurt their relationships. Some people believe that we should keep our political beliefs private for this very reason. They worry that other people will judge their opinions. And of course, many people would agree that it’s no fun to argue with people you care about!

No wonder Haley’s mom says it’s better to keep quiet. 

Talk in person: Let’s say your friend posted a political meme that you find offensive. You might be tempted to call that friend out in the comments, but that’s not the best way to deal with it. Instead, get offline and have the conversation face-to-face—or at least on Facetime. You’ll both be less likely to insult each other this way. There’s something about seeing a person’s face that reminds you that he or she is, well, a person.

Ask questions: If you and a friend are talking about something political, don’t just make statements about what you believe in, like “The government needs to do more about climate change.” Instead, show curiosity and interest by asking your friend what he or she thinks. (“What do you think should be done to protect our planet for the future?”) By engaging instead of lecturing, you might learn something new.

Adjust your perspective: It’s unlikely that you are going to change someone’s mind. Instead of trying to persuade the other person to switch sides, make this your goal: understanding his or her point of view. 

Point out common ground: Even if you are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, there’s often at least one thing you can agree on. Discovering what that is and noting it during the conversation can help make politics feel less divisive.

Know when to end it: If the person you’re talking with offends you or if you feel like you can’t respond respectfully, call it quits. Say: “This is heated. Let’s end this because our relationship is more important to me.”

Walk away when it’s not worth it: Surely you can’t be expected to politely engage with every political debate, right? Absolutely not. It’s sneaky, but sometimes people use “talking politics” as an excuse to be bigoted or cruel. If someone’s beliefs make you feel unsafe or invalidate your existence (for example, the person makes prejudiced comments about your religion or ethnic background), walk away. There’s a difference between having a political debate and being attacked.

—additional reporting by Jane Bianchi

Can you talk the talk? Click here to take our quiz on election lingo.

Respectful Discussion

But many experts say that being able to share our honest opinions is important for our friendships. It’s important for our country too. 

America was built on the idea of freedom. We are free to vote how we want. We are free to say how we feel. When we hear other people’s ideas, we learn about other ways of thinking. This can help us become more accepting. 

Experts say the problem isn’t the election. The problem is that we must learn how to talk to people with different opinions. We need to share our views without arguing or putting down each other’s beliefs. 

“The only way we can overcome our divides is by speaking across them,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the importance of talking about tough issues.

Haley agrees, and thinks that it’s important to have respectful discussions. “Some of my friends don’t like Taylor Swift’s songs. But we can still talk about her. We should be able to talk about the election too.”

Now that sounds like a winning idea.

Can you talk the talk? Click here to take our quiz on election lingo.

Thanks to the experts who helped us with the tips for this story: Joan Blades, J.D., co-founder of Living Room Conversations and AllSides for Schools; Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement