Ah, Thanksgiving, the holiday of football, apple pie, gratitude, overcooked fowl, and, inevitably, uncomfortable conversations. Even if you sit as far from your cantankerous Uncle Joe as possible and you loudly compliment your Aunt Sara’s stuffing to distract from any mention of Trump/Congress/fake news/climate change, something is bound to go wrong. As a Wesleyan student, it’s nearly impossible to avoid a political discussion at the dinner table, and the possibilities are endless when it comes to environmental issues. Maybe someone loves barbecue and finds your veganism pretentious, or maybe they think climate change is a hoax invented by Al Gore. Whatever it is, come prepared with the Wesleyan Sustainability Office’s tips for having productive conversations with difficult family members (and climate change deniers).
Don’t attack or condescend.
This seems obvious, but in practice, it’s often forgotten. Many issues are personal and emotional, which can cause us to lash out, but that can put your relative on the defensive. Coming from a place of respect really does pay off.
Chances are your relative is not a despicable person with an anti-Earth agenda. Try to understand what experiences and knowledge shape their opinions by asking plenty of questions. This will also show that you’re not immediately dismissing their position, which will encourage them to do the same for yours. It will also allow you to formulate an argument that targets their specific perceptions.
Speak in terms of their values.
Disagreements on environmental issues are often rooted in personal politics and morals. Consider your relative’s background and affiliation and listen closely to the language they use to help identify their values. Then, morally reframe your argument—it could be your best chance of persuading them. Stanford University Professor Robb Willer has found, for example, that conservatives are much more likely to agree to liberal health care policy if it is described in terms of “conservative values like patriotism and moral purity.” A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows this applies to environmental issues, too. Your old Uncle Joe doesn’t care about the polar bears, but he might respond to an argument that climate change is a national security and economic issue, and it is our patriotic duty to address it.
Memorize a few straight-forward pieces of evidence.
Citing extensive scholarly articles is obnoxious, but a few snappy statistics can definitely beef up the body of your argument. (But don’t lead with these—that’s also obnoxious). NASA and the National Climate Assessment are great nonpartisan sources of data on climate change (e. g. the average temperature in the U.S. has increased by 1.2 degrees since the beginning of the 20th century, the rising sea level already causes widespread flooding, scientific consensus is that human emissions ARE at fault, etc.) For other issues such as food ethics, avoid relying on fad media (e.g. Cowspiracy), which seem unreliable outside a niche audience.
Resist the urge to have the last word.
A study of argumentation shows that most arguments are won within four replies. After that, your chances go way down. Before you let your Thanksgiving dinner plummet into complete awkwardness, end the conversation even if you haven’t “won.” Set your pride aside and know that standing up for your beliefs in a respectful way is enough.
Follow up after you’ve both had time to reflect.
If you’ve followed the rest of our tips, your relative probably still respects you despite your differences. This opens the door for recurring discourse, which can never hurt. Read a compelling article in a magazine or notice something alarming in the news? Send it over to Uncle Joe’s ancient Hotmail account. Have an idea of how to better express your opinion? Give him a call. Slow and steady argumentation wins the race.
We at the Sustainability Office hope these tips make your Thanksgiving conversations go a lot smoother and encourage your family members to consider different ideas. Who knows—maybe Uncle Joe will go vegan!
Katie Shewfelt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.