The popular maxim about avoiding political conversation at the dinner table may still be appropriate for those who want to finish a meal in peace, but should Americans really be so reluctant to share their political feelings with persons they know hold differing opinions?
Face-to-face political conversation is a subject Jaime Settle, the Cornelia Brackenridge Talbot Associate Professor of Government and Data Science at William & Mary, explored with alumna Taylor N. Carlson ’14, an assistant professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, in the book, “What Goes Without Saying: Navigating Political Discussion in America.”
“I do think there are skills we can encourage people to develop that could lead to an increased inclination to talk or have healthier kinds of conversation,” Settle said. “I think in a lot of ways that’s the value of a liberal arts degree. How do you use evidence to support your point of view, and how do you learn to listen to others who disagree with you and engage meaningfully with them?”
Settle joined W&M News to discuss the topic and her new book. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why do people have such a hard time having face-to-face political conversations?
A: I think for most people, they have motivations that make open and honest conversations across lines of difference really difficult. What I mean by that is people care a lot about preserving their own self esteem. They care a lot about their social relationships with others, and unless you are really passionate about politics or really feel like the discussion has to happen, people are more invested in preserving their social relationships or the way that others think about them, as opposed to having a high-quality discussion with someone they disagree with. It’s a point that’s easy for those of us who care a lot about politics and think a lot about politics to forget, but most people aren’t paying that much attention. Politics is not at the center of their day-to-day lives, and so if you take a step back and think about why is it that people are communicating with others in the first place, it’s typically not for these normative goals of really unpacking our differences and trying to find consensus on issues.
Q: What tips do you have for those who want to have healthy conversations about politics?
A: A friend of mine in the religious studies department, Annie Blazer, actually introduced me to this distinction between questions of curiosity and questions of persuasion. When you are trying to persuade someone to change their mind on something, you’re going to be asking them very different kinds of questions, and you’re going to be responding in very different ways. If you can approach the conversation from the point of curiosity and really trying to understand what someone believes and why they believe it, the tenor of the conversation likely goes a very different way. The problem, of course, is the more serious that the differences are between Democrats and Republicans in our country, you may discover that the “why” of what someone believes is really offensive to you. You may discover that you really do see the world in a different way, that you really do value different things and that your vision for what makes for the good life, what makes for a good society and where our country should be headed is different. You may discover that there are really big differences there, and I think to come at it from the point of curiosity is great if you’re open to learning these things about people you love. But if it’s more important to you to preserve the friendship or preserve the relationship with a family member, I’m not giving the advice to not talk about it, but I think it’s important to be intentional and think about what you’re trying to accomplish and whether the value of what you’re trying to accomplish by communicating with one another is important enough to risk what could go wrong.
Q: How has the current political climate made face-to-face political conversations even more difficult for people?
A: One of the things political scientists know is that polarization has moved into the realm of our identities. It’s not just that we disagree about particular policies, it’s that we perceive the other side to be really different than us, and people have come to actually overestimate the association between different sorts of identities or cultural preferences and the typical political views of different groups. That process has been underway for many years, at least a decade, but I think that it’s really accelerated over the past few years, and I think we’ve had political leaders who have tried to capitalize on that for political gain. I think that makes those sorts of identity, cultural, political associations all the stronger and makes it a little bit harder to think about engaging in those conversations that could be contentious.
Q: What happens as these healthy political conversations become rarer and rarer?
A: If you aren’t actually encountering people who are like you but differ in their political views, you’re going to increasingly see your outgroup as much more different, so I think it will definitely contribute to the perceived polarization problem. I think it also hides the areas of consensus. You see this a lot on some of the most controversial issues relating to abortion or relating to gun rights, for example. There are actually particular policy changes that majorities of Americans support, but if we stop talking, we’re going to lose sight of that and we’re going to be focusing on the views that the parties are advocating for that then end up just inflaming their opponents. I think it will make it hard for people in the course of their interactions with others about politics to remember that there are these major consensus points, and I think it’s a self-perpetuating cycle in that those who want to talk, those who have the incentives to talk, those who tend to have more extreme political views and are more comfortable talking, their voices are just going to become a larger and larger share of the conversation. That’s only going to reinforce this idea then that if you don’t feel that strongly or want to avoid contention that you should opt out entirely of participating in these conversations.
Q: Are social media trends as it pertains to political discussion mirroring what we’re seeing in face-to-face interaction?
There was the promise of the Internet, but the actual ways that people use the Internet are not especially well-designed for good conversation. I think it’s only gotten worse over time. I think you’ve seen instances where forums where people want to be talking about non-political things have devolved into political talk. There are many instances of Facebook groups that essentially had to disband or where the moderator said, ‘OK, no more, we’re not allowed to talk politics in here.’ And I think that’s really telling in terms of the extent to which politics has creeped into other conversations. So yeah, I’d say the starting place was different between online and face-to-face. The psychology is a bit different and the kinds of people you’re talking to are a bit different, so I’m actually more pessimistic about social media being a good forum for high-quality conversation than I am about face-to-face.
Q: People are understandably turned off by conversations that occur on social media. How does that affect a willingness to engage in face-to-face conversations?
A: Taylor, my co-author, has written extensively on this and how she thinks of it as kind of grapevine communication or a game of telephone and that all forms of communication are interwoven. What we hear when we watch television or when we see something on social media is going to leak into our face-to-face conversation as well, and her focus is on the quality of the information and the information degrade as it moves from person to person to person, but I think one of the major effects of social media is enhancing the caricature of the other side that we see, and that was what my first book was about, essentially saying this is reinforcing these stereotypes we have about who the other side is and what they believe. If using social media helps cement that image in your head, it’s going to make it all the harder to overcome the challenge of talking with someone face to face that you know you disagree with, unless you also are confident that because of the other ties you have with that person or the strength of the friendship, you’re going to be able to navigate through those challenging conversations.
Editor’s note: Democracy is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist