How do I shut down offensive conversations with friends and family?
June 24, 2016 10:48 AM   Subscribe

This isn't a unique problem, but I need help dealing with it. When family and friends engage in political (or not) conversation that veer into racist/sexist/bigoted tropes, how can I shut down the conversation quickly? I don't want to engage in a debate, but I also don't want them to casually rely on old, offensive tropes around me.

This problem has become acute recently when I had dinner with my in-laws and they started talking politics, relying on racial stereotypes but ignoring structural racism. I really wish they would not talk politics at all, but especially not talk about broad groups of people. I realized I just need to get better about making my boundaries clear.

When my parents engage in this sort of conversation, I usually tell them that they might not be racist, but their language is. It kills the topic quickly and they know to be more careful with their language around me. I don't currently feel comfortable doing this with everybody (like my bellicose racist uncle or my very sweet in-laws), but I'm also tired of letting these people hold court. I don't expect to change their minds, I just want them to know I don't want to hear certain topics/tropes. I really want to just kill that conversation, I don't want to turn it into a prolonged debate that goes on for the next hour. I try not to engage, but it seems like tacit compliance, and I want them to just stop it.

It seems like a time to solve this given the state of political discourse in the US, my fatigue with putting up with nice bigots around me, and the fact that we have a new kid and so we're spending more people around them.
posted by sock potato to Human Relations (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
"I disagree with you, and it's really painful to argue about it. I just want a nice dinner, but I can't do that if we don't change the subject. Can we move on to something else? I'm just so stressed out about politics/race/world problems. I know you guys understand."

If they don't stop, excuse yourself for the rest of the evening.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:53 AM on June 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

Argue back once or twice. There's a pretty significant set of people who thinks "I don't want to debate" as an admission that you lack the courage of your convictions, and will increase the volume, but don't actually want to debate themselves, and your engaging the conversation will quickly end it.

Uncle: "Donald Trump is going to make American great again."

You: "He would have been better off putting his dad's money in an index fund, and where would your business be without Mexican workers or customers?"

Uncle: "So how about them Mets?"
posted by MattD at 10:59 AM on June 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I heard this somewhere else:

Give them a wide-eyed look and exclaim "Whoa, why do you want to know about my sex life?" This causes them to pause and be taken aback, and then you'll get a "What?!?" reply. At which point you follow up with "Oh! You said POLITICS. I get them confused because they are both embarrassing, and people are getting screwed."

Alternatively, sometimes you just have to agree to disagree. And that's fine if the other people involved can end the political conversation after you've reached that point.

I know people, though, who have a "whoever yells loudest wins" approach to political arguments. And that's when you say "Listen, I've enjoyed my time with you, but it seems like you want to talk politics right now. And I'm just not up for that, so I have to get going. Have a great night!"
posted by Ostara at 11:13 AM on June 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

When I lived in the US I enjoyed gently baiting these people into digging their hole deeper. Eventually I'd confess: "But, I'm an immigrant!" Either the person turned red-faced and shut up, or came out with "But, I don't mean people like you..." (Oh? So what kinds of people?) "Well, you, um, you speak English..." (But I also speak French, like most other people I grew up with. Bilingualism is a feature, not a bug. What exactly do you mean by 'not like me'? Bait, bait, bait... It's easy for a lot of people to talk trash, but surprisingly hard for them to be very blunt and say "Whites only!"-type stuff.)

A couple of years ago (?) a few magazine articles made the rounds about how the best way to alter a bigot's thinking was to expose them to the people they thought they disliked. Hey, that mechanic you're always talking up -- he was initially here illegally, got in through the Reagan amnesty. Hey, my brother, the one who's always taking Sock Potato Jr to the ball games? He's gay. So maybe my "Hey, I'm an immigrant..." was actually useful -- it probably would have been more so if I had been kinder about it, too...

So if you have any people you know in common who the bigot in question is essentially talking trash about, it can be useful to remind them. They're not just amorphous groups; they're individuals. Let them chew on that.

MattD also makes a good point about silence sometimes being an invitation to keep on with trying to convince you, and just one shut-it-down thing being good enough.

Having a child also gives you some extra leverage -- I'm not comfortable with Sock Jr hearing racist language; Sock Jr goes/will go to preschool with a lot of the children of the people you are talking negatively about, so I'd like to not have this conversation here -- and if they're not interested in your boundary, pick up Sock Jr and (politely, calmly!) announce that it is time for you and yours to go home. At that point you're not having a nice time, so why stick around? Make visits short, and bounce quickly when the trash talk starts until the point sticks.
posted by kmennie at 11:14 AM on June 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

I have sometimes succeeded in turning this type of conversation around with a lighthearted "Oh gosh, politics is really depressing -- I don't have the energy for it -- can we please talk about something else?" Key is making it sound sort of joke-y rather than accusatory and then immediately mentioning some sort of topic that you are fine with talking about and is likely to get people talking -- pop culture tends to work well in my group, like get people talking about Game of Thrones, but obviously tailor this to your group. Like, if I were with my inlaws, I would be talking about the latest exciting game/sports news for a team in their city. Another good one that can draw people in is something "gossipy" like "Oh gosh, after the week I had, I cannot handle a politics discussion tonight! You will never believe what my coworker did! ... "
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:14 AM on June 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't know if you can successfully shut the conversation down, but you can make it clear that you disagree by responding with, "that hasn't been my experience at all," when they speak in broad generalizations about groups of people.
posted by MsMolly at 11:33 AM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have to say, I'm not a fan of trying to figure out how to shut other peoples' conversations down because it strikes me that's a short way for a righteous (lefteous?) politics to start eating its own tail.

But political philosophizing aside, I'm really just chiming in to make a plea for you to keep engaging in those conversations as an ally to those who experience forms of discrimination. Sometimes even quick responses can be powerful: "I disagree." "Thinking/talking about this topic in those terms doesn't feel right to me." "Those claims seem to me like they're based on assumptions or stereotypes that aren't true."

If they're holding court, you can walk away, saying: "This conversation is making me uncomfortable because it conflicts with values that are really important to me. I'm going to step out / hang out in another room. Someone can come and get me when it's over / I'll check back in in 15 minutes."

You can even address head on the fact that you don't want a prolonged debate: "I know that I may not be able to change your mind, but I really disagree with / worry about / am convinced that / am uncomfortable with the idea that..." And then you can let it go. "Like I said, I know that I might not change your mind, but I just needed to voice my conscience on this issue. Let's talk about something else now."

Granted, these are all rather tepid "I statements," and they're doing an awful lot of emotional labor; they lack some of the militant activist sensibilities I, personally, admire. But they do maintain a tenor of talking about difficult topics with civility, which in the current political climate, may have its virtues.
posted by pinkacademic at 12:33 PM on June 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

I usually just go with, "We are not going to agree, so we should not discuss this. [Insert another topic]."

Some variant of that usually works. With my dad or other people I feel more able to be clearer with I just flatly say that I will not discuss an item. "We're not doing this. [Insert another topic.]"
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:35 PM on June 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

Early in my marriage, my father began telling racist jokes to my husband and my very quiet, introverted, socially awkward husband said "Mr. (MyMaidenName), I don't find jokes like that funny." My father never told jokes like that to my husband again. He also stopped telling them to me. (#myexesfinestmoment)

I think the combination of genuine personal respect and deference and solid disapproval of the topic was pretty powerful stuff.
posted by Michele in California at 12:57 PM on June 24, 2016 [14 favorites]

Another fairly passive option is to leave the room or whip out your phone when this talk starts. "I can't do politics" works as a general explanation and "Aww, don't say that," in response to specific bigoted language.

Michele in California has a great answer as well.
posted by gentian at 1:16 PM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it's hard to police family conversations. You don't want to hear politics. I don't want to hear about video games, craft beer, pro sports, the merits of Beyoncé or the joys of going vegan. I'm not sure that anyone can just ban a complete topic from general conversation.
You want to ban nice bigots, I want to ban self-righteous trend-seekers.
I think suddenly being engrossed in your dinner is probably easier.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:41 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Honestly, it got bad enough for me that I asked my husband to please talk to his parents.

They want to watch Fox News 24/7? That's fine, it's their house. I won't say anything, and will still sit in the living room and politely take part in the conversation provided we aren't arguing politics, with Fox News blasting in the background all the while. I've worked in call centers, I've learned how to tune out background noise.

My husband talked to them, told them how much it stressed us out that when we came to visit, we came to see them, and not to discuss politics. That we know our politics and theirs don't mesh up. That we disagree on a lot of issues. "But," he said, "We love you guys and want to keep seeing you. And every time you start in on politics, I end up with my wife crying in the car on the way home. I don't want that. I don't think you want that either. There are thousands of other things to talk about. Let's discuss those instead."

The first time my FIL brought up politics after that conversation, I quietly stood up, grabbed my book, and left the room. I went out and read on the front porch for a half hour. I came back in, and in stereotypical Upper Midwestern fashion, no one said anything, and we haven't talked about politics since.

It's not a great solution. It certainly doesn't address things in a way that will force them to change their views. I do challenge when they say stupid things like "All Muslims should be sent to Gitmo!" by saying, "I completely disagree. I have many Muslim friends and coworkers and they are great people. I don't think forced internment camps are a great idea - they were a terrible idea in WW2 and are a terrible idea now. (small pause) I saw your roses are doing really well, did the fertilizer you were planning to use help? They're looking great" or some other such redirect.

So depending on what you're dealing with, having your partner talk to their parents + "that hasn't been my experience" is probably your best bet here.
posted by RogueTech at 2:23 PM on June 24, 2016

You can invoke etiquette: "Miss Manners said not to discuss sex, religion, or politics around the table. Can we talk about something else? Anybody see the game last night?" (Note: Did not verify if she actually said this; nobody will care.)
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:34 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am planning on standing up at both of our wedding receptions and announcing that if you need to discuss politics, you shall do it outside, because I get enough of it at my goddamn job. This is the strategy that my deeply-divided family has always used to keep the peace (and was totally necessary to head off, say, the conversation where I explain to my dad that if he punches the 90-year-old, he will not only look like an asshole but probably lose the fistfight, too.)
posted by restless_nomad at 2:34 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've outright exclaimed "what the fuck" when one of my uncles used the n-word and have asked other people what the hell is wrong with them when they say bigoted shit but I'm probably significantly less conflict-averse than you.

I seem to have reached the point where people know not to say certain things around me or I'll throw a shitfit and "ruin" family dinner. I don't mind being cast as the bad guy, though, since it achieves my goal of not having to tolerate bigoted speech.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:54 PM on June 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

Thanks everybody for your help. I really would love to push back on them more in the moment, and think I might start doing that with people I don't mind pissing off. It's just particularly fraught with my in-laws since their own kids just let it go (and I doubt my partner will change), and I am really worried about offending them in other ways. They're fairly traditional and conservative, and I sincerely don't wish to stop them from watching Fox News, praising Reagan, or thinking whatever they want. I just want them to stop talking about it around me and the kid.
posted by sock potato at 8:53 PM on June 24, 2016

This doesn't work for every situation, but I usually put on a big smile and say, "Wow, people used to say things like that about our grandparents!"
posted by islandeady at 12:18 AM on June 25, 2016

"It makes me sad to hear you say things like that. I know you are loving, thoughtful, intelligent people, but comments like that would make someone who didn't know you think otherwise."
posted by sallybrown at 8:42 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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