Don't Try to Win the Argument

What to do if you’re a Hillary fan seated next to a Trump supporter at a wedding

Anthony Lee / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

When America is finally great again, they’ll make the latte with soy milk like you asked.

All those political cracks, not to mention earnest proclamations, mean that for the next 10 weeks, many casual interactions run the risk of erupting into full-blown partisan warfare. It’s more of a danger for those with family members or close friends who support opposing candidates and views. But on Facebook, hot-button scuffles can break out between almost anyone. (I recently witnessed a college friend who lives in Europe arguing about gun rights with a random guy from my high school in Texas, whom I myself have spoken with only a few times in person.)

One reason Americans find the other side’s views so inflammatory is that increasingly, they view their political party as more of a tribe than a checkbox. “People start seeing themselves or their political views as the main representation of their values, and what is right and wrong,” said Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA.

Some social scientists think the subsuming of personal identity into political affiliation is part of what’s driving Americans’ increasingly intense polarization. As of 2010, for example, about 40 percent of Americans wouldn’t want their son or daughter to marry someone of the opposite party, up from 5 percent in 1960.

So hearing or reading “Hillary for Prison” or “Never Trump,” for someone who disagrees, becomes a matter of defending turf rather than discussing ideas. It’s especially easy to get sucked into group arguments online, Maidenberg said, because the responses to a Facebook post are so intermittently rewarding. Some of the comments are positive, and some aren’t. But when they agree with you, they feel so good.

The problem is, polarization is isolating. You might not want to be best friends with a political adversary, but once you’ve ripped each other to shreds on Facebook, it’s harder to make eye contact at happy hour. Partisan hostility “deprives people of social connections and social support that they will need at some point,” Maidenberg said. “It’s very troubling.”

So the key to winning these political arguments is this: Don’t try to win them. Seriously! People stick pretty firmly to their party affiliations. There are ways to make people less biased, but it’s really hard and best done in person.

If you’re enmeshed in an unproductive spat over, say, Europe’s refugee policy, the goal should instead be to de-escalate the fracas as swiftly as possible.

That, of course, is harder than it sounds. Because these issues are so consequential, it’s hard to resist wanting the last word. “If someone was to say something about broccoli, you wouldn’t feel sucked into the argument,” explained Anita Vangelisti, a communications professor at the University of Texas who specializes in interpersonal interactions. “But if someone gives you a strong view about something you care about, you tend to take on a defensive stance.”

This isn’t to say people should avoid earnest policy discussions, especially if they aim to understand the other side better or learn more about an issue. We’re talking about the comments section of this rainbow cake recipe, not Intelligence Squared.

Maidenberg and Vangelisti offered a cheat sheet for how to diffuse those types of conflicts—without giving up on your own beliefs:

  • If you can physically leave the situation (or close the Facebook tab), say something like, “I continue to disagree with you, but I’d prefer not to fight about it.” This is savvy, Vangelisti said, because it allows you to stick to your guns while looking reasonable and well-mannered. Look at you on that high road!
  • If it’s too late for that, or if you’re trapped at a dinner or another setting where escape isn’t possible, try asking the other person endless questions about their beliefs. “You can refocus the conversation on the person’s feelings, like ‘It sounds like you’re really worried about terrorism, why is that?’” Vangelisti said. “Then, it can be a different conversation than banning Muslims.”
  • What if their answers make clear that the sources of their facts are, to you, wrong? Maidenberg suggested acknowledging the validity of their point of view by saying, for example, “I can see that you think that, given the sources of information that you have.” (Ed: This one, while perhaps the most satisfying, might get you punched in the face.)
  • Whatever you do, avoid being negative. “Negative affect reciprocity” is the tendency of people to mirror each others’ anger and frustration. If you refuse to be negative back, Vangelisti said, it instantly stops the escalation. Even though it may require several deep breaths (or sips of wine) to muster the strength.