Please help me find ways to stop thinking and talking about politics
September 26, 2023 1:34 AM   Subscribe

I am from the USA and vote Democratic. I would describe myself as center-left. I do a lot of international travel and spend very little time in the US. I am interested in world history and current events. Sadly, this is inhibiting my personal growth and interfering with my social life.

I would like to become friends with people who don't share my political views. I would also like to become friends with people who do share my political views, but have slightly different values. I've found that even when I agree with someone, they'll sometimes get angry if I don't agree with them "in the right way" or for the same reasons. I'm tired of talking about politics, and I feel like we could be having much more interesting conversations. I'd like to make new friends, and I don't care if my friends agree with me politically.

Also, when I'm alone, I would also like to spend less time thinking about politics and current events. I find that, in my "alone time," I'm obsessing over the same narrow set of subjects instead of thinking creatively or paying attention to the world around me.

Here are some specific situations I would like help with :

1. I'm socializing and having drinks, and politics or current events comes up. I want to : resist the urge to offer my own opinion; validate other peoples' feelings and let them know they're being heard; and if possible, change the subject or leave the conversation

2. Somebody wants to talk to me about the US or US Politics. I want to : establish that I'm on the left; indicate that I'm unhappy with the state of US politics; acknowledge that the US has done a lot of bad things in the world; and if possible, change the subject or leave the conversation

3. I read a news story or hear a podcast that discusses current events or social change. I want to : avoid feeling angry or afraid; resist the urge to come up with a theory or opinion; and resist the urge to relate it to my own life in some way

4. "Out of nowhere" I just automatically start thinking about politics or current events. I want to resist the urge to ruminate on the topic. I either want to think about something else, or pay more attention to the world around me

I should mention that I'm still interested in staying informed. I just want to improve the quality of my social life and my inner dialogue.

What strategies would you suggest for dealing with these kind of situations?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting question! Recently someone told me that they think Americans have opinions about everything, and that feels true to me - I didn't really realize it was a cultural habit but it makes sense. It's not a bad thing; we are citizens of a democracy so we have somewhat of an obligation to have opinions.

What helps me re: political conversations in social settings - maybe redirect by asking questions about the current situation wherever you are, or questions to understand better where the other person is coming from. Basically more questions and less statements about your own position.

To ruminate over current politics less, I'd suggest ruminating over historical politics more. Reading more history definitely helps to put things in perspective and reminds me that the arc of the moral universe is long, etc. Also actively seek out other types of content - art, stories, film - that aren't specifically political. Having a well-rounded, flexible world view is definitely worth the effort.
posted by catcafe at 1:56 AM on September 26 [3 favorites]

Specifically for 1 and 2:

1 - I want to....validate other peoples' feelings and let them know they're being heard

2 - I want to....establish that I'm on the left; indicate that I'm unhappy with the state of US politics; acknowledge that the US has done a lot of bad things in the world

These are both completely incompatible with "change the subject or leave the conversation" (especially #2 which is inflammatory to a lot of people who are politically opposed to you).

By "validating and establishing" you're inviting conversation and debate and you're already in too deep.

The solution is just to immediately change the subject or leave the conversation if the other party won't let you change the subject.

The old chestnut about a liberal being "someone who will argue against themselves just to be fair" applies here. Being respectful of others doesn't mean you can't have boundaries! If those boundaries are "I don't talk about politics" then it's up to other people to respect your boundaries, like they expect you to respect theirs. And if they don't? Leave the conversation.
posted by underclocked at 3:46 AM on September 26 [7 favorites]

I'm an American living abroad. My response is colored by the fatigue of how often people feel comfortable expecting me to be an authority on or scapegoat for national greivances.

I'm all for being informed, within reason. News and media are consumables these days, just like cars and clothes, and it's helpful to steer clear of branding. There's no such thing as purely objective reporting, but it's easy enough to steer clear of anything overtly marketed as opinion or editorial. I subscribe to a daily email (found by reference right here on MeFi) that briefly summarizes ten-ish things that you'll probably hear people talking about that might be important, along with a couple vetted links to more information if I'm inclined to dive into any of them. This is plenty. Outside of this, I still have a couple magazines that I read that tick my personal trustworthiness boxes, but otherwise I try to steer clear of the urge to be a part of the to-the-minute daily news cycle grind.

Otherwise, I don't freely offer my opinion if it's outside my chosen areas of interest. For me that's: LGBTQIA stuff, drug development and policy, animal law, and a couple hyper-local legislative/policy issues. That's what I tend to say when (random splashy politics gossip) comes up: sorry y'all, that's just out of my wheelhouse. Did you see that paper about sunscreen actives bioavailability, though? Jeez, what a mess FDA's making. Reinforce your ones of interest, that kind of thing.

By and large, though, finally letting go of my last two newspaper subscriptions--and my morning read routine--has been this bizarre godsend. I have access to both through my library when I need to refer to specific articles, but unplugging from the stream has simply left so much less real estate available to this kind of rumination.

WHatever steps you take, good luck! I think it's a very worthy cause you're after.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:59 AM on September 26 [2 favorites]

Use non-committal phrases to close the debate and change the topic:
"You might be right. So..."
"to each his own. Anyway..."
"I admire your conviction. The other day...."
"ain't that something."
posted by dum spiro spero at 3:59 AM on September 26

For me this was just not compatible with my preexisting idea of "staying informed." Like, I pretty much just had to stop reading Twitter and I generally only have a surface-level understanding of what's going on any given week. I could certainly learn more if I wanted or needed to, but like, Trump for instance—I know there are various ongoing legal proceedings, but I couldn't tell you the names of the prosecutors etc. Sometimes I'll get interested in a story and I'll read up on it, but I will intentionally pick out the most anodyne and detailed possible sources of information and I will not read the comments.

Stuff I'm interested that is related closely to politics (like transit) I have to be pretty careful with; I try to stick to more technical approaches to the topic. (So I'll read somebody's post about point-access apartments, or double-tracking railroads, but I'm not going to get on r/fuckcars and mainline 40 posts about terrible drivers nearly hitting cyclists.)

If somebody talks to me about politics I just kind of... demonstrate a lack of knowledge (and as a result interest) while being polite and personable, like if I got onto a jag talking about sports with a friend who doesn't care about them. My friends mostly do not want to talk about politics all the time already, so this might be harder if yours do.

If you don't have a lot of not-directly-politics hobbies, that'll be a problem. Either way you will have to get used to the intense incentive (often strictly financial, like in terms of engagement with content used to serve you ads) to create political content that is related to your hobby. If Greg Popaovich, for instance, says something about gun control in a press conference and it gets posted to Reddit because he's the head coach of the Spurs... look, I'm in favor of gun control, too, but I am hiding that post instantly. I am on r/NBA to read about basketball because I like thinking about basketball qua basketball. (To be clear this happens on the right too and i am equally vigorous about hiding those, but given your existing news intake I doubt you're going to run into a bunch of Clay Travis articles on accident, so that's where my examples are going.)

You will have to decide if you go this route whether there is some moral obligation to learn about important things you cannot really control and think about them in a way that you also can't control, or if there's a level of control (however minute) that means you must, etc. Based on the way I framed that (which is not generous to me two years ago) you'll guess where I landed, but obviously it's your call. What I will say is that choosing not to give something your attention is not a call for that thing to not exist or a positive statement that it's not important. (Though sometimes I do feel that way!) You can believe that it's good for, i.e., someone with Greg Popovich's platform or whatever to speak out on important issues and still think that you will gain nothing from reading 1000 comments about it or watching the video.
posted by Polycarp at 4:08 AM on September 26 [1 favorite]

Underclocked points out the things that jumped out at me too.

You're going to struggle to change your behaviour as long as you aren't aware of the contradictions in the things you want.

It might help to acknowledge your needs, without having to gratify them.

For example, it seems that you want people to know what your political affiliations. Why? Is this coming from a place of fear that they'll judge you?

You can acknowledge that discomfort ("they might think I'm...") without acting on it.

Almost all of your questions sound like anxiety driven need to avoid unpleasant feelings.

You can't avoid unpleasant feelings. But you can learn not to get stuck in them.

If you hear a unsettling piece of political news on passing, note that fact, take note of how it makes you feel, and take note of how quickly you move on to something else. Study yourself like a kind and compassionate scientists who is really interested in these feelings you're having.

Be aware of your negative self talk. How often do you tell yourself "I just can't" or "I couldn't bear it if" and so on?

That makes it so much more difficult to change.
posted by Zumbador at 4:22 AM on September 26 [3 favorites]

I'm a former expat, and, yes, it's wild the way folks want to hold an individual American accountable for every action and choice and frustration with our government.

Since I was married to a diplomat and there were Social Expectations, I didn't have the option of debates or visible annoyance.

I developed a canned response. "The United States is the third-largest country in the world, and we have a diverse population of X (I forget what it was at the time). I think it's important to remember that I'm just one person in all of that diversity and history."

Similarly, it's important for you to remember you're one person, and you're not your government.

I keep abreast of the news, but I do not allow doomscrolling or despair. I turned off news alerts on my phone, and I pack my phone up by 8 most evenings and read a book.
posted by champers at 4:34 AM on September 26 [12 favorites]

Also, I stopped being friends with "nothing is good enough" people. If I do X to help Y group and get told I should have done Z instead, or am otherwise picked apart, I'm done.

There's being challenged so you can grow, and then there's someone else getting their jollies by playing Ultimate Moral Authority.
posted by champers at 4:38 AM on September 26 [8 favorites]

Somebody wants to talk to me about the US or US Politics. I want to : establish that I'm on the left; indicate that I'm unhappy with the state of US politics; acknowledge that the US has done a lot of bad things in the world; and if possible, change the subject or leave the conversation

I think the only solution is to really practice and develop your redirecting conversation skills onto a neutral topic. If you mostly meet locals, then the weather, the local sports team, the traffic, tv shows, fashion, local celebs,... If you're mostly meeting other travellers then the weather, their country, the country you're both in, films, soccer, fashion, gobal celebs,....

On the other hand, it's easy to convey your overall position. Every American I know can just say "I voted Biden,..." or "I vote Democrat,..." and their broad political affiliation is understood. This means you can say very little before moving on to something else conversationally Other nationalities have to work harder and get more in-depth.

It is challenging, because when you are abroad you are always "the American", just like if I travel I am always "the Brit". And a consequence of both history and current affairs is that there are a small number of countries on which people in many countries have "a view" and top of that list is the USA. You cannot stop people doing it so you have to find a way to live with it.
posted by plonkee at 5:14 AM on September 26

I am American and live in the US. I travel abroad a few weeks per year, mostly to visit friends or see places, occasionally for work. My work is not political and the last time anyone work-related wanted to talk politics was when Obama was elected the first time; I was abroad around the time of his inauguration and everyone was very excited. For non-work people, when politics does come up we pretty much all kind of shrug at some of the stupid things the US does and move on. One European friend and I do often talk about politics in terms of helping each of us better understanding what is going on in the other’s country, which is kind of cool. I guess it helps that we all basically agree but none of us gets bogged down in it. (Seconding champers re ignoring the “nothing is good enough” crowd, and adding that those who think nothing the US/Biden/Congress/Dems do is good enough to those who think nothing individuals do personally is good enough.)

It sounds like you’re not necessarily bringing up politics but get stuck in conversations where someone else has brought it up. I more-or-less agree that it’s tough to establish where you stand and then change the subject away from politics, but I’ve done it when asked. “Yeah, Trump’s a butthead, how about…” I do not bring up politics myself.

As to how to stay informed but stop thinking about it all the time: as other have suggested, find one (ideally short) source to summarize info in a way that you trust. Consume that daily or weekly and aside from that, find other interests. That sounds trite, but it’s hard to stop something without replacing it with something else, so fill the “obsessing about politics” time with another activity. Find other things to read, listen to, watch, or do. Go outside, be around other people who are not talking about politics (even if you don’t actually interact with them), move. Paint. Knit. Cook. Dance. Learn tai-chi. Take up woodworking or pottery. Find people who are into these things and will want to talk about them instead of politics. Listen to music or podcasts about other topics. I find that podcasts often advertise or do “guest episodes” of other podcasts which has expanded my view in ways I’ve never even thought about. Watch (or read) sports or horror movies or rom coms. Etc.

It’s worth thinking about how informed you feel you really have to be. Is it helpful to anyone? I used to feel I needed to be Up On All The News, until I realized that it it wasn’t helping either me *or anyone else* for me to obsess about the news and get upset up about it. I did land on still paying some attention to some political topics, but not all, and I don’t think that makes me a bad person. (I think it is part of what Polycarp is saying too.)

I also have found that learning history (even the bad parts) has been oddly comforting. I am sure there are those who would argue that history just proves that humanity sucks, but I prefer to take it as proving that there is also a lot of good, and that we’ve survived every sucky thing so far.

I love podcasts and would be happy to give podcast suggestions if you want to message me, or another Ask looking for podcasts/books/movies/activities based on your particular interests could be useful.

Good luck!
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 5:45 AM on September 26 [1 favorite]

What are your actual values though? Surely not whatever comes out of a centrist democrat's mouth at any given time, right? You have beliefs, opinions, ideals, and ethics that are intrinsically yours. Right? I hope

I mean, I sure do. When politics come up, I am pretty lefty, get moreso every day. And in the US that means I basically just vote Democrat, because our choices suck. But ideologically, I'm a feminist. I'm a feminist first. Not a political party. What belief structures, legislation, social services, etc would serve intersectional feminism the best? How can I make my choices in a way that will bring the best most good to my sisters (not cisters). Politics are fungible; I stick with my values and I can never go wrong.

Anyway, these days when I strongly disagree with someone and don't or can't argue about it (work, for example) I just say "wow, can't disagree with that enough, that really strongly doesn't align with my values." Like what are they going to do, argue that I don't actually believe what I believe? Lol, nah, conversation is over. And, importantly, I didn't let anyone slide saying something hateful or stupid around me.

Forget politics, figure out what you actually believe in, and stick to that. It's made me feel a lot better about these kind of conversations, and I think it will help you, too.
posted by phunniemee at 5:55 AM on September 26 [16 favorites]

One point -

I've found that even when I agree with someone, they'll sometimes get angry if I don't agree with them "in the right way" or for the same reasons.

Honestly, this is more about them having a personal failing than it is about your ability to navigate political discussions. You can find people like this in conversations about Pokemon, for pity's sake.

In general it's always good to not be That Guy about politics, but I don't think someone coming back at you like this is your fault.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:57 AM on September 26 [3 favorites]

Honestly? I lie and say I'm Canadian. It forestalls any number of unpleasant conversations and everyone seems to hold the understanding that Canadians are nice. I spend quite a bit of time there anyway so it's not entirely untrue, but I hereby give you permission to adopt the ruse if it will help. I know a lot of Americans who travel internationally who do this as well.
posted by ananci at 6:16 AM on September 26 [1 favorite]

I've done this successfully in the past (although I've since backslid, and this ask is actually a useful reminder to me). Here are a few things that helped:

1. Limit social media, including (especially?) Metafilter.
2. Take a look at what you do on the internet when you don't have anything else to do. This was a big source of trouble for me, because the sites that I just habitually check are all news/politics-heavy. Try to find some replacements.
3. This is the most important one: try to be less interested in opinions, including your own. For me, I had a weird moment of clarity where I suddenly realized how much of conversation about politics, both online and off, was just people broadcasting their opinions at each other to no real effect. I decided to cultivate having fewer opinions about things. I can't stop other people from wanting to tell me their opinions, but there's less opportunity for that kind of conversation to take hold if I don't respond with one of my own. Instead, I try to ask people about experiences and stories that they have.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:27 AM on September 26 [8 favorites]

Somebody wants to talk to me about the US or US Politics. I want to : establish that I'm on the left; indicate that I'm unhappy with the state of US politics; acknowledge that the US has done a lot of bad things in the world; and if possible, change the subject or leave the conversation

I get the motivation behind this but I suspect this is where you are running into trouble. I would not say anything about my own political leanings and instead treat the interaction as an opportunity to observe how American politics is perceived by those outside of the U.S.

Trying to establish your place in the continuum will almost certainly put a target on your back as someone who is a person with an opinion that is OPEN TO DEBATE. This is a trap in my opinion. What you are looking for is a dialogue with the other person not a debate.

As for ruminating, I've found immersing myself in fiction has been a great help to get off of that merry-go-round. It's a great re-set.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 8:39 AM on September 26 [2 favorites]

Echoing what phunniemee says -- figuring out what you actually believe might be key to avoiding these kinds of conversations, or steering them in a direction that is less awkward.

I am not at all comfortable with a "politics as sport" type conversation or picking teams like we're watching an event, and peoples' actual lives aren't at stake. Political news as entertainment has done a real number on us, I think.

Does climate change matter to you? Prison reform? Student debt relief? Kind of digging into one of those areas (and becoming active as much as possible) could have the dual benefit of providing at outlet and community into which to channel some of your anxiety, while also giving you a topic of conversation that can bisect neat political divides.
posted by pantarei70 at 11:02 AM on September 26 [2 favorites]

By "validating and establishing" you're inviting conversation and debate and you're already in too deep.

The solution is just to immediately change the subject or leave the conversation if the other party won't let you change the subject.

Another vote for this approach. I'm not proud of it, but I don't have it in me to perfectly prune my social circle according to standards of ideological purity, and so I'm on somewhat affectionate terms with quite a few people of highly questionable politics. And this it the only way that works for me. I mean, I did have all those arguments with them, when I was younger, and I think that was actually very important too. I hate to imagine they could think I'd agree - and do, on occasion, also remind them of my disagreement; silence reads as approval, I wouldn't want that - but then I drop it, and find something else to talk about. The magic words are "that's not my experience/ not my observation/let's agree to disagree."

As a teenager, I hated that move a lot - human-caused climate change is not a matter of opinion! - but the point is acknowleding that you won't be able to persuade the other and neither will they be able to persuade you, and that further discussion of the matter is therefore pointless.

Sometimes people will insist on a debate anyway, and I might humour them, if I've known them since Kindergarten, but then I expect them to be able the handle the fact that I'm not very diplomatic in phrasing ideological disagreements. They've also known me since Kindergarten. They know what they're getting into.

I don't do this with strangers. If a casual aquaintances rejects my olive branch of a change of topic, I'll start avoiding them in the future. Lots of people don't though! Lots of people don't enjoy talking politics once they sense that you disagree and will gladly cooperate when it comes to finding another topic.
posted by sohalt at 11:39 AM on September 26

As a Canadian living in the US, please don't pretend to be Canadian.

You start your question by identifying as an American, a voting American. Then you say you spend very little time here. Try identifying as an expat as your primary, as this will help convey the space between you and your nation of origin that you are looking for. People will want to introduce you as "The American" so co-opt and update that with "an expat American" and that will much better convey your actual relationship/status/feelings.

People will still seek out your company because they are interested in talking to an American about America - so I try hard to center that intention in my own interactions. They will also know that Americans generally have very little knowledge of the rest of the world so it's a safe topic to start a conversation. I will note my appreciation of a perspective from outside, and then, like others have suggested, just redirect the conversation to another subject.

With people I expect to have regular interactions with I might add some context for when I do talk about where I am from. Not only am I not 'the' representative of a whole country, I frame it by telling them they are talking to someone who is most certainly not an average, and that I am not 'a' representative. In my case the average Canadian actually lives in Canada, the average Canadian doesn't even travel to this location, etc etc as I have a long list and I try for something relevant to the topic. I've been away so long the place I am from is rather different than the place I know.

I would also suggest that your goal to quickly represent yourself as a lefty is misguided - primarily because party politics like voting Democrat simply aren't easily mapped to whatever their conception of politics (theirs or yours). That's a whole book of explanation you are trying to skip. And second because a lefty democrat would not be interpreted as a particularly defensible or even decent political philosophy in large portions of the world.

Instead I would remark on the fact that many media markets emphasis US politics, culture and media as shorthand for 'westernization', 'modernization', 'post-capitalism', or, worryingly, 'post-democracy'. Beyond any trends or actual newsworthiness, US politics are often used as a scapegoat to define what is bad or simply shift attention away from domestic issues. So talking about American politics is a way to also talk about local issues like agricultural policy, industrial 'modernization' or women's rights. And these are central issues in many societies right now. So if you say you miss McDonalds that is saying a whole lot beyond just your taste in fries.

Because maybe the water you have swam in you only saw the Big Mac as just a sandwich. And if you were not always mindful and or just willfully oblivious (as I often am) to the hidden iceberg below of all the factory farms, ag industrialization, crop subsidies, and exploited labor, then the easy path is to think the burger is just a burger. But the reason McDonalds regularly get torched in France is because it isn't just a burger, it is a stand in for a whole system.

This is how a hot topic can often include US politics - because it is the easy thing to compare to and is an effective foil against which many local political issues can be framed. Here I return to my original suggestion: embrace being an expat. In my experience perhaps the only true benefit of being an expat is that not only am I removed from my nationality, I am also, if I desire, to be aloof from these local issues. Perhaps the ultimate privilege is being from a western nation and simply choosing not to be interested in such concerns or conversations.

But understand that to live as a colony of one is to be deeply isolated from what concerns the people around you.
posted by zenon at 12:21 PM on September 26 [2 favorites]

One last thing - seek out expat communities, which are as diverse as they come and will both embrace you and understand your exact situation.
posted by zenon at 1:03 PM on September 26 [1 favorite]

Yeah, not to pile on, but pretending you're Canadian just isn't a good idea. It also bypasses an opportunity to complicate someone's representation of the US.
posted by umbú at 6:56 PM on September 26

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