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The Pitfalls Of Politics At Holiday Dinner — And How To Handle Them

This week’s Barbershop will explore whether politics or mobile phones should be allowed at the Thanksgiving dinner table with Steven Petrow, who writes the Civilities column for the Washington Post, Harriette Cole, who writes the syndicated advice column Sense and Sensitivity, and NPR’s Sam Sanders.

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The Pitfalls Of Politics At Holiday Dinner — And How To Handle Them

Two people talk over dinner.


This week’s Barbershop will explore whether politics or mobile phones should be allowed at the Thanksgiving dinner table with Steven Petrow, who writes the Civilities column for the Washington Post, Harriette Cole, who writes the syndicated advice column Sense and Sensitivity, and NPR’s Sam Sanders.


Now it’s time for our weekly trip to the Barbershop. That’s where we gather some interesting folks to talk about what’s in the news and what’s on their minds. And this week, what is on our minds is Thanksgiving - specifically, how to navigate those sometimes tricky dynamics at the holiday dinner table. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are Steven Petrow. He’s The Washington Post’s Civilities columnist. He’s with us from WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C. Good to have you, Steven.

STEVEN PETROW: Great to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: And at NPR’s New York bureau, Harriette Cole, who’s also a syndicated advice columnist. Her column is called Sense and Sensibilities. Hi, Harriette.

HARRIETTE COLE: How are you?

MARTIN: And last but certainly least, with us here in Washington, D.C., is Sam Sanders, NPR political reporter. Welcome to the Barbershop, Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So is anybody looking forward to Turkey Day?


COLE: I am.

MARTIN: Well, see...

PETROW: I’m looking forward to the pie. I’m a dessert man.

MARTIN: Well, exactly. OK, but one reason we started thinking about this - and Sam, I heard your (groans) is that holidays are a time when people catch up with family. And oftentimes, family are spread out. But it’s often the case that people with different points of view are getting together...

SANDERS: Exactly...

MARTIN: ...Right...

SANDERS: ...Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Which, you know, there’s a lot of potential, especially at a time when there are a lot of things happening in the news, that people could really...

SANDERS: There’s a lot to argue about this season...

MARTIN: Exactly...

SANDERS: ...A lot to argue about...

MARTIN: Exactly...

SANDERS: ...You know?

MARTIN: Right. So is that why you’re not necessarily looking forward to it, Sam?

SANDERS: You know, I mean - well, for one, it’s my job to get the food for the family. So I’m literally running from, like, three to four places to get the turkey from that place and the green beans from that place, so that’s the first reason. But secondly, you know, talking politics with my family is going to be hard, I think. And it’s going to be hard for most families this year because there’s so much to talk about, with the Paris attacks and the aftermath of that and discussions of terrorism and refugees. There’s a lot going on and people...

COLE: And the election...

SANDERS: ...All over the map on it.

PETROW: Oh, yeah, that, too.

MARTIN: So Harriette, what about the dinner table? Because, you know, there used to be this - I don’t know, was it a rule - I don’t know whether it was a rule - but no politics or religion discussed at the dinner table. I don’t - does that rule still exist? Does anybody observe it?

COLE: Well, I would like to say that I think it should, and let me give you the context. I definitely think that we should all talk about these issues, but not over food. The reason that it was recommended to not talk about challenging issues over food is because it can mess up your digestion, literally.


COLE: I mean, it’s one of those scientific realities. If you’re really upset and you’re fussing or your insides are going crazy, you’re not going to digest your food. So it’s with your coffee and your digestive wine or, you know, one of those - your cigar after your meal that you can go for it. And I think in this case because there’s so much to talk about, you invite your family to get ready for the discussion before or after - not during the meal.

MARTIN: Interesting. Steven, what about that? You know, I - there are people who believe that if they don’t take an opportunity to stand up to drunk Uncle Joe, OK, that they are somehow letting down the side, right, that they’re not standing up for their values, especially if someone makes a comment that they deem to be morally questionable. What do you say about that?

PETROW: Well, I’m going to respectfully disagree with my etiquette colleague up in New York, Harriette...


PETROW: ...Because I think that, you know, if we’re going to take religion and politics away from the dinner table, honestly, I don’t know what’s left to talk about these days because...

MARTIN: The Kardashians, please. What are you saying?

PETROW: Well, that’s political, too, you know...


COLE: My family...

PETROW: You tie that into Caitlyn Jenner and there you are...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah, well, you’re right. You’re right, yeah.

PETROW: ...In the middle of the LGBT stuff. So I think that we need to learn how to talk to each other again and converse, argue, debate in a civilized way, not taking cues from what’s happening, you know, from our political campaigns. But Michel, going back to what you said, you know, if a topic is in play and you don’t say something, I think it’s fair that people are going to assume - unless you’ve got a real, you know, history with the issue - that you’re on board. So I think we need to be authentic, and we need to be respectful.

MARTIN: Sam, where are you on this?

SANDERS: My thing with these conversations around the dinner table or - for my family, we often have these conversations in the car going to church, which is always weird to me. But with all these conversations I rarely, rarely find anyone’s mind actually changes. So I’ve just kind of...

PETROW: Yeah, that’s true.

SANDERS: ...Stopped trying to engage.

MARTIN: So what do you do? Do you say nothing, or do you try to offer - do you...

SANDERS: Well, now that I’m a journalist, I can just say well, you know, I’m not going to go to that as a journalist, et. cetera.

PETROW: Copout, copout.

SANDERS: Yeah, like, I’m not going to change my mother’s mind. She’s probably not going to change mine, so we just end up talking about gossip back at church.

MARTIN: Interesting.

COLE: Well...

MARTIN: Well - go ahead, Harriette, one more bite at that apple.

COLE: Yeah, I want say that my point was about where you’re having the discussion. I think the discussion is really important, and I agree that you have to learn how to listen carefully, speak civilly. And to your second question, if it’s a drunk uncle - a drunk anybody - they’re not listening.


COLE: So really it’s pointless, and I think sometimes you can get up and walk away, too, because those people tend to not change and - but you don’t have to be complicit.

PETROW: You know, I think also bringing a sense of humor into these topics is important and remembering that these are people that you’re connected to. They’re your community whether they’re your family of origin or choice, and we need to get along and not attack. My own personal strategy’s also not to drink because there are lots of drinkers in my family, and that can sort of take it down, you know, a rabbit hole.

MARTIN: OK, so you are the designated not-drunk person.

SANDERS: It also helps to, if you can, sit at the kids’ table because they’re not having those discussions.

MARTIN: OK. But I do have to ask you about the kids’ table. I personally have a rule - no phones on the table.


MARTIN: No phones on the table.

SANDERS: Oh, my.

MARTIN: But I am told that there are people who feel they could not get through a dinner without their Facebook or social media...

SANDERS: And then there’s the people that are taking...

MARTIN: ...Friends, taking...

SANDERS: ...Pictures of family throughout the dinner and sharing them, so it is actually part of the community building.

MARTIN: At the table you have - you have your phone at the table - what?

SANDERS: I mean, I have it, like - yeah.

MARTIN: What’s your mother’s number? Can I call her...

SANDERS: Go for it, she will talk your ear off.

MARTIN: ...To discuss...

COLE: We do not have the table at my mother’s table, absolutely not.

PETROW: I have a column next week. And I interview about two-dozen teenagers, and I asked them for their advice about keeping phones away from the table. They were generally in favor of creating a basket where phones would be placed before you sat down at the table for that hour or hour and a half or making it into a game that whoever took out their phone first either would be the last to get dessert or would have to do all the dishes.

MARTIN: Sam is like - Sam’s about to leave.

SANDERS: My phone, my choice.

MARTIN: His head is spinning off his neck here.

COLE: Where did you find those young people?

PETROW: So Sam, you don’t want to come to my Thanksgiving anymore?

MARTIN: No, I think he is.

COLE: I think you have to get those pictures, the Instagram photos of the perfect table first and then put the phones in the basket.

SANDERS: Yeah. But, I mean, like...

PETROW: Well...

SANDERS: ...Two Thanksgiving ago, I got the best little candid photo of my mother and my aunt sleeping after the pecan pie on the back porch. And it was just so sweet, and, like, it captured the beauty of that entire day. And I was glad I had my phone. Like, I was glad...

PETROW: And did you...

SANDERS: ...I was able to capture that moment.

MARTIN: That was after...

PETROW: Did you post that?

MARTIN: ...The dinner though.

SANDERS: I sure did post it - got a lot of likes, too.

PETROW: Oh, well...

MARTIN: From them, though - I don’t know...

COLE: Did you get your mother’s permission?

PETROW: Yeah, you need your mother’s permission...

SANDERS: That’s right, that’s right.

PETROW: ...Before you post.

MARTIN: I think I am getting her number, and I am calling her.


SANDERS: (Laughter) Bring her to the Barbershop.

MARTIN: I’m calling her, and I’m going to bring her and get her take on - OK, so switching gears now - switching gears now - it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without pie. And you know I’m going to bring this up, the Patti Labelle sweet potato pie.

SANDERS: Patti pies.

MARTIN: Patti Pie - if you can’t...

COLE: Can’t find them anywhere.

MARTIN: At some Wal-Marts, they’re actually answering the phones with an announcement of whether or not they are sold out of the Patti Pie.

COLE: Good for her.

MARTIN: And it’s all because of...

SANDERS: Go ahead, Patti, get your money.

MARTIN: ...It’s all because of this guy right here.


JAMES WRIGHT CHANEL: I went and bought the Patti Labelle pie - sweet potato Patti Labelle - this is the Patti edition, honey. This is the (singing) on my own...

SANDERS: He can really sing.


CHANEL: (Singing) ...Why did it end this way?

MARTIN: I just...

PETROW: And he can eat, too. When you see that video...

COLE: Oh, man, he got a big-old piece.

PETROW: ...He’s had, like, three pieces. Yes.

SANDERS: In the follow-up video, where he recaps finishing the whole pie, that’s even better.

MARTIN: This really does raise an important question in my mind, and I just really need to ask all of you. Are you ready?

COLE: Yes.

MARTIN: Are you ready for it? OK.

PETROW: This is it, yeah.

MARTIN: Sweet potato or pumpkin?

PETROW: Pecan.

SANDERS: Right. Yes, pecan.

PETROW: Pecan with bourbon.

SANDERS: I don’t to want to be the first say it, but I’m team pecan. I am some from Seguin, Texas, which is the pecan capital of the world, actually. We have a large pecan sculpture in front of our city courthouse. Like, I just grew up team pecan.

PETROW: And Michel, I’m, like, known as the pecan pie king throughout the Western Hemisphere.

SANDERS: Oh, my.

MARTIN: Oh, wow. I think I hear a challenge. I hear a challenge.

SANDERS: A challenge.

PETROW: I’m going to try the Patti pie. I think I’m going to make it this year.

SANDERS: If you can get it.

COLE: If you can get it.

MARTIN: How are you going to get one? You must have a hookup.

PETROW: I’m going to bake it; recipe’s online at The Washington Post. So I’m going to make it.

MARTIN: And everybody’s hating on pumpkin. There’s no pumpkin love...

SANDERS: I got into this really weird...

MARTIN: ...In this room. There’s no pumpkin love here. I don’t understand.

SANDERS: I got into this really interesting conversation with Karen Bates from our Code Switch team...


SANDERS: ...About the racial divisions...

COLE: Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: ...Between sweet potato and pumpkin pie, which I had never thought of.

COLE: It’s also regional. So African-American people - if you took a vote, most African-American people are going to vote for sweet potato. It really is kind of true. Pumpkin is very popular among white Americans. But also, in the South, if you’re - now pecan - OK, fine - but in the South, if you’re choosing, it’s usually sweet...

PETROW: It’s pecan...

COLE: Excusez-moi.


PETROW: ...In the South.

COLE: See? I’m not Southern enough. I’m from Baltimore. I’m from that border state.

PETROW: Sorry, Harriette.

COLE: Border city-state, right? But we like sweet potato and get mad if pumpkin’s on that table, man. And I could close my eyes and take a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of sweet potato pie and I know the difference, and I’m choosing sweet potato.

MARTIN: OK, that is settled here, all right? That is Harriette Cole, who is a syndicated advice columnist. Her column is called Sense and Sensibility. Steven Petrow is with us. He’s writer of The Washington Post’s Civilities column. And NPR’s Sam Sanders - they’re all here with us in our Barbershop conversation. Thank you all. Happy Thanksgiving.

COLE: Thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you.

PETROW: You too.

via NPR

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