It’s been an intense year for topics that are generally considered verboten at the dinner table — namely, politics and its quarrelsome twin conversation starter, religion.
Whether you are hosting an intimate afternoon tea or a boisterous wine dinner, I believe you have a responsibility as a host to create a safe, sane space for your gathering — and as a guest, you also have a responsibility to contribute to keeping that space safe and sane.
With politics practically dripping from newspapers and television, it can seem impossible to avoid these topics when entertaining. But it’s possible, and it’s worth trying. While I do not suggest these topics are not important, there is a time and place for them. There is also time and place for mindful connection with friends and family.
Here are 3 strategies I use to avoid these troublesome topics when entertaining.
1. Create the Container, Set the Tone
Think of your home (or wherever you are hosting) as a container — a place you are bringing lots of things together, such as food and beverage, people and conversation — to create something nourishing. Before anyone arrives, make sure that you’re setting the tone appropriately.
Most important thing first: Turn off the TV. I am probably sounding like an uptight newspaper advice column, but I can’t impress to you how annoying this is. The most delightful party, with the most delicious food, can be entirely ruined with a TV running in the background. Who wants to hear advertisements for toe fungus cream while they’re trying to eat?
Other thoughtful touches can set a tone of tranquility for your party: put away newspapers, give your entertaining space a declutter, have some fresh flowers, and perhaps an essential oil diffuser on full blast with a calming blend can really shift the tone from “the world is about to implode” to “let’s relax and enjoy time together.”
2. Lead By Example
I’ve found that if you begin with some mindful conversation starters, you’ll find a chain effect: more and more mindful conversation begins, and you’ll find your party is off in a wonderfully positive direction. That’s why we created an entire question cards deck of mindful questions to help. And one of our community members actually used our Making Moments Matter worksheet at a tea party.
It doesn’t matter how, but I believe it’s your job as a host (or as a guest) to bring uplifting topics into the fold. Right now, stop and take 60 seconds to think about what great stories you’ve heard or positive anecdotes you could share at your next gathering. Have some great conversations at the ready.
3. Shut Down Trouble
If troublesome topics do make a guest appearance at your gathering, or you’re finding a guest feeling squirmy and uncomfortable with the topical chatter, don’t be afraid to shut down the conversation and change topics.
Whether you’re the host or you’re the guest, you don’t have to be a dictatorial jerk when doing this. Here are some examples of how you could handle it:
- If you’re the host and things are getting heated and you want to hit the nail on the head: “While I think these issues are important, today’s gathering is about catching up as friends and hearing about what is going on with each of us personally. Respectfully, let’s move on to a less troublesome topic….”
- Emily Post actually suggests being more subtle; while some might find this passive aggressive, it is another effective tact: “Sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering if I could get everyone’s opinion on….”
- If you’re a guest and someone is trying to “stir the pot,” so to speak: “I appreciate your views on this. There are plenty of opportunities to have that conversation — but for tonight, let’s focus on friends and family.”
What happens if your host is the one engaging in topics that make you uncomfortable and your attempts at changing the tone aren’t successful? If possible, try to pull them aside and have a quiet word — perhaps they are unaware, and no need to call them out at the table and embarrass them.
I honestly think when troublesome topics come up at the party table, few people have malicious intent. Many people live in fear and believe when the news tells them that the world is in dire straits. You know better. Bring people back into the fold of positivity and gratitude. They’ll be thankful for it.