deflecting fight-pickers at christmas

Anonymous said to :

My mother sometimes likes to pick fights at family gatherings, especially meals. She brings up controversial political opinions/things she knows many of us are uncomfortable with (she is fairly ableist, homophobic etc). I will be staying with my parents for Christmas. Do you have any advice on how to deal with this? I have tried just saying ‘I don’t want to argue about this now.’ or leaving the table when I got too uncomfortable but was called rude for doing so.


realsocialskills said:


It might be ok if people call you rude. Sometimes there’s no way to effectively assert boundaries without anyone objecting. Sometimes there’s no way to insist that people stop saying mean things without being somewhat rude. Sometimes putting up with being called rude is more tolerable than putting up with obnoxious and offensive conversation. I don’t know if that’s the kind of situation you’re in, but the possibility is worth considering. 


I don’t know who said it first, but I think the most important principle is: You don’t have to attend every argument that you are invited to. The fact that your mother insists on saying offensive things and trying to pick fights doesn’t mean that you have to argue with her about them. You get to decide what you do and don’t want to talk about.


(Especially given that it’s an established rule of polite behavior that at this kind of gathering, one should not talk about controversial topics that are liable to result in unpleasant arguing. But that would be true even if you were not at the kind of gathering where that’s a rule - you don’t have to argue with people who say offensive things unless you want to.)


That said, you might get better results from changing the subject than from leaving or saying that you don’t want to talk about a given topic. (Or you might not. It really depends on your family.)


Changing the subject can be better because:

  • If you just say you don’t want to talk about the controversial thing, it can give a new hook for arguing.
  • Then it can turn into an argument about why you’re too PC to listen to the ~obviously-true~ bigoted opinions 
  • Or how you’re rude, or censoring, or ~causing tension~ (the tension is already there; caused by the people who insist on picking fights about offensive things. It’s not your fault. But it will sometimes be convenient to blame you.)
  • If you introduce a new topic immediately, there’s something to talk about that isn’t a fight
  • That can sometimes make the path of least resistance talking about the new thing rather than fighting about the old thing

Changing the subject to something your mother consistently wants to talk about that isn’t offensive:

  • Your mother: These people I’m arbitrarily bigoted against are terrible! My tax dollars shouldn’t be going for this. Why can’t people be decent like they used to be?
  • You: How are things at work? How are things going with your new client?

Changing the subject to something that other people present want to talk about:

  • Your mother: These people I’m arbitrarily bigoted against are terrible! My tax dollars shouldn’t be paying for this. Why can’t people be decent like they used to be?
  • You: Hey, did anyone see the sportsball game last night? How amazing was the ball thrown by that sportsball player on the team that half of you root for and the rest of you hate?

Changing the subject to something a particular person present is likely to want to talk about:

  • This can work well because it shifts the center of attention to someone else, and most people like attention
  • If you’re aggressively paying attention to someone who is interested in talking about something non-offensive, it’s much harder for someone to interject with something offensive, or to call you rude

Eg:


  • Mom: People I’m arbitrarily bigoted against are ruining everything. My tax dollars shouldn’t be paying for that! People used to be decent. 
  • You: David, how are you liking the exciting new thing you just purchased? I’m thinking about upgrading mine, do you think now is a good time?


Sometimes it works better if you explicitly say that you don’t want to talk about the thing while you change the subject:

  • Your mother: These people I’m arbitrarily bigoted against are terrible! My tax dollars shouldn’t be paying for this. Why can’t people be decent like they used to be?
  • You: Mom, let’s not talk about politics. It’s Christmas. Your tree is absolutely gorgeous, where did you find those new ornaments?

tl;dr Some people like to pick fights by saying offensive things. You don’t have to argue with them if you don’t want to. One way of deflecting the fight is to change the subject. (That doesn’t always work.) Scroll up for more details and scripts.